King Gets The Last Laugh Over Efimova… For Now


It doesn’t get much better than this. The last 48 hours have been the conclusion to a heated war of words that felt more like the leadup to a boxing match than a swimming eventLilly King and Yulia Efimova traded barbs on the way to a showdown in the women’s 100 breast, a rematch of the heated Rio Olympic battle from just under a year ago.

You won’t find two more different-yet-somehow-similar characters to serve as international foils. There’s Efimova, long and lithe, swimming her smooth and graceful brand of breaststroke one lane over from the more compact, powerful King, all ferocity and brutality in her bulldozing stroke. One wearing the three-banded white, blue and red of the Russian flag, the other draped in stars and stripes of the exact same color, somehow dragging up a sense of uneasy and sometimes aggressive national pride like a forgotten ghost of the Cold War. One roundly despised for two high-profile brushes with international anti-doping law, the other regularly criticized for her brash, often-thorny public persona and predictably unpolished commentary.

In Rio, Efimova struck first in the semifinals, putting up a big swim and throwing up a #1 with her finger as King watched from the ready room. King famously responded with her own hand gesture, wagging her finger at Efimova in a signal that was eventually carried across the Olympic aquatic center to her rival by way of social media and TV airwaves across the globe.

In the final, it was King who triumphed, as Efimova took the deck to a chorus of boos. And while that was in some ways a conclusion to a beaten-to-death storyline, it was also just the beginning – as the burning Olympic spotlight passed, the enmity between the two didn’t, and swimming’s unfortunate passing back into relative media obscurity only served to put the lid on a pressure cooker full of a volatile mix of extreme competitiveness, nationalism and the tricky and always-impassioned issue of clean sport.

Things came to a head again this week when Efimova pulled off a massive semifinals swim, rattling the world record with a 1:04.36 (the four-year-old world record is 1:04.35) and giving King a mocking finger-wag of her own. King responded in the next heat with a big swim (1:04.53), but not enough to unseat Efimova as the top qualifier into the final.

That set off an uneasy 24 hours of buildup to the final showdown in what was dubbed “fingerwag-gate” by television commentators. (We spend much of our time as swim fans bemoaning the sport’s general status of being ignored by major television outlets, but when we do get TV spots, we have to hear mortifying phrases like “fingerwag-gate,” so are we really better off? It’s a true case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for.)

Tonight’s final was all King. She used her greatest weapon – unmatchable front-half speed – to build a lead of half a second, all but unsurmountable, even for a great closer like Efimova. It was King finishing with a world record 1:04.13, backing up her bold words from earlier this year.

A clearly-disappointed Efimova (she faded to 1:05.05) shook her head one lane over as King celebrated with teammate Katie Meili, who snuck in for silver ahead of the Russian. Efimova drifted towards King’s lane as if to congratulate her rival; King only showed the Russian her back. Was King merely distracted celebrating with Meili? It’s impossible to say. But it’s also hard to classify any interactions between these two as wholly unintentional.

Budapest’s 100 breast ends the same way Rio’s did, with King getting the last laugh – or the last finger wag (-gate) as it were. But while Rio felt like a conclusion, it wasn’t one; and it’s doubtful Budapest will prove any different. Efimova is 25 and swimming the fastest times of her life. King is just 20 with two more years of college left. Tonight’s race could have used a Bond-esque epitaph: “Lilly King and Yulia Efimova will return.”

Likely as early as Thursday, when the two have side-by-side lanes in the 200 breaststroke – typically more a specialty of Efimova’s, as King’s stroke in a 200 often feels like red-lining a bulldozer from New York to LA one one tank of gas. (But King did coax that bulldozer to the world’s #2 time this season, so what do I know.) And then again on Saturday, when Efimova swims one heat before King in the 50 breast, set up perfectly for yet another call-and-response run of big swims. The 50 should perhaps suit better to King’s furious style, but again, the two rank 1st and 2nd in the world with seed times just two tenths apart.

That’s the greatest beauty of the King-Efimova Conflict (please don’t call it fingerwag-gate, for the love of god): even with resolution, it doesn’t end, as our friend Dr. Manhattan might blast forward from the Cold War to remind us.

King gets the last laugh… for now. But both women better rest up those fingers. Because the next chance to wag will be here in no time at all.

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samuel huntington
4 years ago

1. I think the media is starting to over-hype this.
2. Efimova is a doper, so I take her swims with a grain of salt.

Reply to  samuel huntington
4 years ago

The media IS hype.

Reply to  samuel huntington
4 years ago

I agree. I don’t consider any record broken by someone who tested positive at anytime to be legit. That includes Hardy.

4 years ago

ok but the main rivalry between them is in the 100 breast not the 200 so…

4 years ago

Would love to see Efimova on the podium with USA one and 2

4 years ago

I wonder if King will be talking trash about the 200?

E Gamble
Reply to  ArtVanDeLegh10
4 years ago

Sorry. The trash talk was always about the 100 breast. Now you want to move the goalpost.

4 years ago

“Best back half speed”… I wonder why? Could that be an indicator of your past use of PED’s because we all know that once you stop using drugs that strength you gain just goes right away… (it doesn’t)

Reply to  Oldcoach
4 years ago

At Arena Pro swim series Orlando a few weeks before she failed the second time she practically even split her 200 breast. In training months before the Olympics the only way to do that is by doping. It wasn’t shocking when the article popped up on swimswam

4 years ago

At least, on a beauty context, the gold medallist is Efimova.
Funny to see all of you speaking about dope… For sure, us swimmes broke WR drinking with clear water when opposition is cheating… LMAO…. The dope is where there are the more money…. US first of course.

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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