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Lilly King embraces role as unofficial spokeswoman for clean sport

In this Aug. 8 file photo, Lilly King celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke final at the Rio Games. King became the face of “clean athletes” in Rio. (Michael Sohn / Associated Press)
In this Aug. 8 file photo, Lilly King celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke final at the Rio Games. King became the face of “clean athletes” in Rio. (Michael Sohn / Associated Press)
By Michael Marot Associated Press

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Swimming star Lilly King is holding her ground on doping.

She wants cheaters out of the pool – and out of international sports.

On Friday, a little more than two weeks after the 19-year-old won the first of two Olympic gold medals, King embraced her new role as the unofficial spokeswoman for clean athletes everywhere.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing,” she said during a news conference at Indiana University. “If you’re going to be the poster child for anything, I think that’s a good thing. But I think if I feel the need to have the final word on something that’s doping-related, then I guess I’m fine with speaking out about that.

“I know I’m right on every single thing about this,” she added later.

King arrived in Rio as a first-time Olympian and one of America’s rising young swimmers.

While she wound up claiming gold in the 100-meter breaststroke and on the 400 medley relay team, it was what took place on the pool deck that turned her into a polarizing figure.

After a television camera captured King wagging her finger at Russia’s Yulia Efimova in the 100 breast semifinals, King won her heat, climbed out of the pool and in a television interview explained she was no fan of athletes caught “drug cheating.”

The comments were directed at Efimova, who took the silver in the 100 breast and then beat King in the 200 breast.

Before returning home, Efimova called King “immature” and criticized her rival for creating a “war” on the Olympic stage.

King didn’t back down then and refused to do so again Friday.

“Actually, I had no intention of planning to speak out. … That was really just me being myself,” she said. “I didn’t really think I was saying anything horrible, I was just kind of speaking my mind.”

Other American swimmers and Indiana coach Ray Looze, who was on the coaching staff in Rio, immediately backed King.

Their position hasn’t changed, either.

“She was speaking her mind, saying what everyone else was thinking,” said Cody Miller, who attended Indiana and also brought home two medals. “There are people who were missing out on swimming in the Olympics because of people who didn’t deserve to be there.”

Even with the Olympic Games over, King can’t escape the controversy.

She’s become a target of critics on social media, especially from Russia. King said the comments come from Russia and are “quite interesting” even though she can only read about half because she’s not fluent in Russian.

Others are a little more disconcerting.

“It is a little frustrating sometimes, like when I post a picture of me and my friend on Instagram and they’re saying things like ‘You don’t deserve your gold medal,’” she said.

But now that King is back on home soil, preparing for her sophomore season at Indiana, the hardest part will be getting ready for dual meets that lack the intensity of international competition.

And at least she is surrounded by fans who largely agree with her opinion that the sports world needs to be cleaned up.

“The support has been great, especially from the people back home,” King said. “There’s something about people who are probably my parent’s age about the U.S.-Russia thing, which I didn’t even really think about. But the support has been absolutely unreal.”

The other big swimming controversy – Ryan Lochte’s tale about an alleged robbery – also has caused a stir on campus.

King called it “sad” that Lochte stole the spotlight from the “greatest” American swim team in history.

Looze, meanwhile, was upset that the evolving story overshadowed the second week of the Olympics. And when Looze returned to Bloomington, Indiana, he also had to engage in damage control.

“I have a Brazilian on my (Indiana) team and another Brazilian coming in and I had to apologize to both of them last night,” Looze said. “I told them it’s not representative of our country.”

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