Before the women’s 100-meter breaststroke final began on Monday night, the two top medal contenders, American Lilly King and Russian Yulia Efimova, waited together in the ready room. Efimova sat in a chair, while King paced back and forth. Neither woman acknowledged the other. Neither said a word. Shortly thereafter, with her gold medal secured and a new Olympic record in hand, the outspoken King had lots to say about doping and swimming and the importance of competing clean. She made no direct mention of her Russian rival. She didn’t need to.
The rivalry between King and Efimova has been one of the biggest storylines of these young Olympics. It started on Sunday night, when Efimova, who had initially been banned from these Olympics for doping before winning a last-minute reprieve, won her heat in the breaststroke and celebrated by wagging her finger in a victorious manner. King, who was waiting to swim in the next heat, wagged her own finger back at the television on which she was watching Efimova’s celebration. The Russian, you see, has twice tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Speaking to Michele Tafoya after her own heat concluded, King justified her response: “You’re shaking your finger No. 1, and you’ve been caught for drug cheating—I’m just not a fan.”
In the world of swimming, that counts as Wrestlemania-style bravado, and I could not wait to see which of the two swimmers would put their breaststroke where their mouth is. Their times in the early-stage heats were almost identical. “[There’s been] so much talk about this race. You can really feel the tension in here right now,” said NBC swimming commentator Rowdy Gaines as King and Efimova—in adjoining lanes, of course—approached the starting blocks. Though NBC’s mics didn’t pick this up, Efimova was apparently booed when she entered the arena. Wrestlemania in the Water! Watermania!
The race began, and it was immediately apparent that, rhetorical gamesmanship aside, both King and Efimova are tremendous swimmers. King had the lead at the 50-meter mark, but Efimova grew stronger, and in the final few meters the two were as close as could be. But in the end, the American was just too strong, taking the gold with a time of 1:04:93, just 0.57 seconds ahead of her Russian counterpart.
When she saw her time, King pumped her fist into her own lane; then, a few seconds later, she thrashed her arm into Efimova’s lane, splashing water everywhere, before crossing over to her right to embrace teammate and bronze medalist Katie Meili. Efimova hung on the lane divider, catching her breath, her taunting finger at rest. “That’s a statement swim right there, for the rest of the world,” said Rowdy Gaines. But NBC wanted King to make an actual statement, too, and after some post-race prodding from Michele Tafoya, the outspoken swimmer obliged.
“Last night, Lilly did the talking, now she did the swimming to back it up,” said Tafoya, before pushing King’s make-news button. “Do you think you made a statement on behalf of the United States and other athletes?” she asked.
“Yeah, I think we did,” said King. “That, you know, we can still compete clean and do well at the Olympic Games, and, and that’s how it should be.”