BUDAPEST — Lilly King grew up in Evansville, Indiana. I grew up near Dayton, Ohio. They’re about four hours apart via a combination of interstate highways. In the summertime, you can see a lot of green and a lot of fields along those roads. We are talking serious midwest.
Maybe Lilly King and I learned a different set of midwestern values.
Where I grew up, I was taught to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. To think long and hard about circumstances and perspective when someone makes a mistake. To consider the notion of a second chance.
To know that the most profound of all virtues and values, indeed the greatest American story of all time, is redemption, because we are all flawed and imperfect, and our world is fragile and broken, and the greatest gift we as Americans can give the world is to pass along that humility in service to try, just try, to make things better, little by little, day by day.
Writ large, isn’t that — so there is no misunderstanding, this is by no means exclusive to Americans — what this whole Olympic spirit thing is all about?
All this came up again Tuesday at Duna Arena as Lilly King and Russia’s Yulia Efimova got to it in the latest chapter of their Cold War-style breaststroke rivalry, King staring down Efimova on the blocks, then firing to a world-record 1:04.13 in the final of the women’s 100 breaststroke, Efimova taking third, 1:05.05. American Katie Meili got second, 1:05.03.
Immediately after touching the wall, King smacked the water with her right fist, a reaction she attributed later to the world record: “I haven’t quite mastered the graceful post-race celebration. Just staying in the moment. That’s how it is.”
She also said at a late Tuesday news conference, “It’s obviously very awkward between the two of us. We’re competitors and we don’t really like each other that much. I wouldn’t like someone who had said things poorly of me, so I completely understand where she’s coming from.”
Competing is different from winning, especially winning to the exclusion of everything else. Let's be clear. If this is about Lilly King getting in Yulia Efimova's head so that Lilly King can win -- I completely understand where Lilly King is coming from, too. But, hey, those Olympic values -- friendship, excellence, respect.
To give King her due, this was her take earlier in the evening:
“I love it,” she said. “I think we got a lot of rivalries like this in other sports — football, basketball, things like that. Swimming, we see a lot of really nice people, being really nice, it’s great and all. That’s not my personality. Katie’s literally the nicest person,” meaning Meili.
“That shows my personality. I’m spunky. I’m confident. I’m not going to not be myself before a race. So that’s just kind of how it works.”
Confidence is totally fine. Humility along with confidence is awesome. That's, like, the whole midwestern values thing.
Just kind of how it also works, however, is that it’s not at all clear that the tone and tenor of this particular rivalry is at all a good thing for us as Americans.
Particularly now, given matters in Washington and, more broadly, the world as it is.
We Americans: we do a lot better when we are humble, generally speaking, and we could do a lot better in a lot of ways around the world, especially now, with a big dose of humility.
The only way we as Americans are truly exceptional is that our behavior when we are overseas — particularly U.S. athletes, and they know this — has to be exceptionally beyond reproach. In this regard, we are held to all kinds of double standards.
It’s not Lilly King’s job to be the president’s personal envoy or the Secretary of State. She is not in any way a government official. At the same time, when she is wearing the red, white and blue, and standing on the podium singing The Star-Spangled Banner, you had best believe she is a representative of the United States, and different people are going to read into that a lot of different things.
You know what I’m saying?
No matter who — if you are an American reading this — you voted for. Or — if you are not — you have an opinion, which you probably do, about American politics.
You know what I’m saying?
A truly sorrowful aspect of all this is that the noise detracts from two people in particular who genuinely are humble in every way.
Barely kicking throughout the race, Katie Ledecky won her third gold medal at these 2017 worlds, the 1500 freestyle, in 15:31.82, the fourth-fastest time ever, more than 19 seconds ahead of Spain’s Mireia Belmonte, herself an Olympic champion, the 200 butterfly winner at the Rio 2016 Games. Ledecky now has 12 world championship golds, most in in women’s swim history. “It’s an honor,” Ledecky said later, adding, “It’s not something I like to think about.”
Some 47 or so minutes after the end of the 1500, Ledecky was back into the water for her semifinal heat in the 200 free. She touched first, in 1:54.69. The final is Wednesday.
At a news conference late Tuesday, a moderator kicked things off by asking Ledecky if she was out of this world. She said with a smile, “Yeah, I think I’m on earth.” She is so down-to-earth, in fact, that she acknowledged she still, at 20, does not have her driver’s license and it’s “not on the top of my to-do list” because, whatever, she is “perfectly happy” biking around the Stanford campus.
Also Wednesday, Matt Grevers took silver in the men's 100 backstroke, the event in which he won gold at London 2012. Grevers took third at the 2016 U.S. Trials and didn’t swim in Rio. Now he’s back — one of the sport’s great ambassadors — and said, “I am still very relevant.”
In Monday’s first women’s 100 breaststroke semifinal, Efimova went 1:04.36, just one-hundredth of a second off the world record, then smiled and did a little finger wave.
Of course this was petty. But this was not going to rebound on Efimova. Because everyone knew this was a nod to King, who started all this last year in Rio.
A few minutes later, in the second semi, King went 1:04.53. It quickly went around that King had not shaved — swimmers do a full-body shave in the belief it reduces drag — and still, she said, had “some left in the tank.”
Turning the wayback machine to last summer in Rio:
King made headlines for wagging her finger at Efimova. And for saying, “I’m not the sweet little girl.” And, “I did it clean.” And then Efimova burst into tears after a dramatic 100-meter breaststroke final that saw King win gold, Efimova silver.
“Of course I remember the Olympics,” Efimova said here Tuesday after racing. “It was the worst thing ever.”
Efimova served a 16-month ban after a positive test for DHEA in 2013. She also tested positive in early 2016 for meldonium, the Latvian heart substance, but was cleared of any misconduct.
The second “strike” doesn’t count in any way. It does not. Understand: Efimova got to swim in Rio.
As for the first:
Efimova was training in Southern California. She bought a supplement at a GNC store, just like thousands of American teens and adults do each and every day.
It is for sure a mistake for an elite athlete to be buying a supplement at a GNC. It is more of a mistake not to read the label. The mistake was compounded by relying on the salesclerk for advice. All this is part of the record.
As are the facts that Efimova’s English is “self-taught,” that the Russian swim federation had never provided “specific anti-doping education” and that “put her at a disadvantage in fulfilling her responsibility to be a savvy consumer.”
In Rio, King memorably said of Efimova, “You’ve been caught for drug cheating. I’m just not a fan,” adding that doping “was on all of our minds. We had team meetings talking about what it was going to be like. We were going to be racing dopers, and we all knew it.”
What to say about this sort of sanctimoniousness and judgment? Can’t we Americans do better? Can’t USA Swimming put a stop to this kind of thing, and immediately?
Otherwise, every single thing it did in the Jessica Hardy matter is a sham.
Like Efimova, Hardy tested positive in 2008 after ingesting a tainted supplement. She missed the Beijing Games. She then came back and swam for the United States in the 2012 London Games, winning gold and bronze medals in the relays.
At the last world championships, in 2015 in Kazan, Russia, Hardy was one of the American team captains.
What — would Lilly King have called out Jessica Hardy?
“I have to just accept what happened and live my life,” Hardy said in a telephone call Tuesday from California, “and what is happening now between them is pretty naive and not something I enjoy watching.
“I am sad it is happening in the sport. I am sad it is happening in my event. I am appreciative of the relationships I had with the women I raced against. We were genuine friends and I hope we can be friends forever.”
Exactly. Yulia Efimova deserves better. Way better. You don’t see Katie Ledecky staring down Mireia Belmonte. Why would she?