Lilly King, the world’s best breaststroker, qualified for the Olympics earlier this week. That was never in doubt.
But Annie Lazor, who finished third in the 100m breast on Tuesday to miss the team by one spot, had one final shot to make her first Olympics in Friday’s 200m breast final.
She delivered, leading a one-two with King, her training partner the last three years in Bloomington, Indiana. Lazor, at 26, is going to Tokyo along with King, who made it in both breaststrokes. They’re bonded by more than all those laps in the pool.
On April 25, Lazor’s father, David, died suddenly at home.
“He lavished love on his daughter Annie and encouraged her big dreams,” an obituary read. “They traveled together to many swim meets where he was her ardent cheerleader – win or lose, he always let her know that she is so much more than her athletic accomplishments.”
King drove five hours north to the visitation in Michigan. There, she made a promise to Lazor’s mom.
“That she was going to do everything it took to put me on the [Olympic] team, and she was going to pull me through practice every day,” Lazor told NBC Sports before Olympic Trials. “That meant the absolute world to me and to my mom.”
King followed through every day for the next two months. She pushed Lazor as a training partner. She distracted her as a friend with silly stories.
“She’s being authentically Lilly by doing that,” Lazor said of King, known for her brash comments and intimidation on the starting blocks, but also for teaching middle school PE, eating a Happy Meal each week in her college days and wearing Crocs everywhere. “That’s what’s really helped me kind of humanize her the last few months.”
At age 26, Lazor was trying to become the oldest American woman to qualify for her first Olympic team in the pool in 17 years.
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She failed in her first chance Tuesday night, when King won the 100m breast and qualified to defend her Olympic title in Tokyo. The 17-year-old Alaskan Lydia Jacoby took second.
“I honestly felt kind of bad because I could tell Lilly was excited to make her second Olympic team, but she was just as heartbroken for me,” Lazor said. “That says everything that you need to know about our relationship, about how she wants me to be there with her for those amazing moments.”
Four years ago, Lazor was what they call a swammer. She quit after missing the Rio Olympic team in both breaststrokes, graduated from Auburn and took an operations internship in the Cal-Berkeley athletic department.
Lazor, feeling the itch to give it one more shot, returned to the pool after a year away in 2017. She eventually worked up the guts to ask if she could train with the world’s best breaststroker.
King and her coach, Ray Looze, welcomed Lazor into their training group in April 2018. By the end of the year, Lazor won a world short-course championship.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Lilly,” Lazor said in 2019, according to Swimming World. “Honestly, given what I thought I knew about her prior to that, I was pretty surprised. Lilly, obviously, has somewhat of a reputation. I would think if it were my competitor and she had this program that’s working really well for her, why would you want to share that with her other competitors?”
In 2019, Lazor took 1.86 seconds off her 100m breast personal best. She chopped 4.19 seconds off her best 200m breast time from before leaving the sport. She finished the year ranked Nos. 2 and 3 in the world in the events after never previously ranking in the top 10.
“I was good,” in the past, Lazor said on a podcast with retired Australian swimmer Brett Hawke, “but I wasn’t that name that everyone knew.”
After finishing third on Tuesday, Lazor allowed herself to be sad.
“I think it’s pretty valid for me to be upset given I swam the third-fastest time in the world but got third to two other people in my country. That sucks,” Lazor said Thursday. “It was time to turn a new leaf when I woke up this morning.
“This [200m breast] is my best event. I’m really protective over this event.”
In Rio, King failed to make the 200m breast final after winning the 100m breast. She made it a goal to improve in the longer distance. She was asked Thursday night, after swimming the top 200m breast semifinal time, how she prepared over the last year for one of the sport’s toughest events.
“Honestly, just keep racing Annie in practice,” she said. “She is a much, much better long-course breaststroke trainer than I am.”
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