In the 2016 Rio Olympics, a then 19-year-old U.S. swimmer Lilly King burst onto the international stage by winning gold medals in the 4x100-meter medley and 100-meter breaststroke. She was the fourth youngest woman on a veteran-laden squad.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, however, presented a new challenge to King: leadership. Because the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Games a year, a new wave of U.S. swimmers entered the Olympic fray. The result: King could no longer get by as the self-described "kid."
"I went from being the rookie to the vet so quickly," said King, who's older than 19 of her 26 Tokyo teammates. "But in terms of my own success, it was again just a crazy meet. Obviously being pretty down after the (100-meter breaststroke) then being able to come back and do really well in the (200-meter breaststroke) was pretty cool. But yeah, it's exciting to see that I've been able to be super consistent throughout the last five years, which is something that's really hard to do."
King bounced back from a bronze-medal finish in the 100-meter breaststroke -- an event she was favored to win -- to earn silver in the 200-meter breaststroke and 4x100-meter medley, helping the U.S. women earn a leading 18 swimming medals in Tokyo.
Those two medals were far from King's only contributions. King made the "seamless transition" into a leader during the 2021 Games, helping first-time Olympians Lydia Jacoby (17), Claire Curzan (17), Torri Huske (18), Regan Smith (19) and Emma Weyant (19) all earn medals of their own.
"We love to keep that gold in the USA family, so this kid just had the swim of her life and I am so proud to be her teammate."— #TokyoParalympics (@NBCOlympics) July 27, 2021
Lydia Jacoby and @_king_lil react to their gold and bronze medals in the women's 100m breaststroke. #TokyoOlympics pic.twitter.com/wIEXtFLkMq
"It was just kind of a crazy ride, and we all had to learn to navigate it together," King said. "I think it turned out pretty well."
King's next ride is the 2021 International Swimming League season, which will air on CBS and CBS Sports Network. You can catch the opening weekend Aug. 28 on CBS Sports Network and Aug. 29 on CBS, at noon ET each day. Her Cali Condors won the ISL Grand Final in 2020, the league's second year, and are hoping to defend their title in Naples, Italy, this fall.
The Condors are led by a slew of 2020 Tokyo Olympics medalists in King, reigning ISL MVP Caeleb Dressel, Olivia Smoliga and Hali Flickinger. But despite their recent success in the Olympic pool, King emphasized that production won't directly translate to the ISL.
Their team chemistry, however, will.
"It's definitely very different, different game, different scenario," King said. "We got a lot of people returning from the team from last year, and we have a lot of fun together, honestly. We just win and goof off and train hard and swim fast, so it's a really great group of people, and we just build off that team chemistry and it usually works pretty well for us."
While King is confident in the Condors' talent and camaraderie, she admits "we were probably a little more hungry" in their title-winning 2020 season compared to 2021.
King plans to regain that hunger through her disdain for the competition.
"We just kind of hate the other teams," King said. "We're really proud to be Condors, and we don't really get along that well with the other teams, to be honest. I think really that hatred of losing is what drives us."
The ISL's regular season is slated for Aug. 26-Sept. 26 in Naples, Italy.
King's Instagram-famous cat, Minnie, won't make the trip, but the 24-year-old Indiana native will be there with the positive attitude and newly-refined leadership skills responsible for her five Olympic medals and ISL championship.
"It's going to be fun," King said. "That's kind of why we do this and why we swim. Just a lot of racing and a lot of fun for the athletes, and hopefully it's fun for the viewers as well."