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Lilly King rips 'bulls—' American habit of not celebrating Olympic silver and bronze medals

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TOKYO — Lilly King has seen the same headlines that Katie Ledecky has. The ones that say American athletes “settle for silver.” The ones that equate bronze to loss. Ledecky tries to laugh them off. King, the most outspoken American swimmer here in Tokyo, did more than laugh on Friday.

“Excuse my French,” she said, “but the fact that we don't celebrate silver and bronze is bulls—.”

She was speaking, generally, to the gold-or-bust attitude that underlies American participation in the Olympics. It’s abundant among media and fans. It’s especially applicable to people like King, who hadn’t been beaten in a 100-meter breaststroke final in 5 1/2 years entering these Games. A month before them, her father Mark told me: “She's in a position in her career now where if she loses, the story isn't gonna be 'so and so won,' it's gonna be that Lilly lost.”

It comes with the territory. It comes with expectations, self-created ones and those that originate externally. And they’re why even King herself was disappointed with a bronze medal on Tuesday. She didn’t show it at the time. She didn’t want disappointment to corrupt 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby's moment. But King, one of the most confident humans on planet earth, felt shook. “Almost in shock,” she said.

Because there is, of course, something special about gold, something about winning, no qualifiers necessary. And American athletes do it more than their counterparts from any other country. Team USA won 46 gold medals in London, and 46 more in Rio. Topping medal tables is the norm. Sometimes success can be so prevalent and customary that even golds can feel mundane.

At the very least, American exceptionalism seems to require gold. Ledecky's silver medal here on Monday wasn't her second Olympic silver, but rather her first Olympic loss in an individual race. And that’s the framing King and others have taken aim at. It’s the Olympic Binary, win or lose. And it’s nonsense.

Annie Lazor (left) and Lilly King deserve to celebrate their Olympic bronze and silver medals, respectively, from the women's 200-meter breaststroke. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Annie Lazor (left) and Lilly King deserve to celebrate their Olympic bronze and silver medals, respectively, from the women's 200-meter breaststroke. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

“Just because we compete for the United States, and maybe we have extremely high standards for this sort of thing, that doesn't excuse the fact that we haven't been celebrating silver and bronze as much as gold," King said.

And Friday, she embodied her words. She hopped a lane line for hugs in the water after touching second in the 200-meter breast. She stood arm in arm with training partner and close friend Annie Lazor, who’d won bronze right behind her. They smiled underneath masks as they paraded around the Tokyo Aquatics Center.

“I might be more happy with this medal than I’ve been with any of my previous medals, including the two golds in Rio,” King said. “We really should be celebrating those silver and bronzes, because those are some of the greatest moments of that athlete’s career, and why would we not celebrate that?”

“I’m just really happy to be here,” Lazor chimed in.

She laughed, and drew laughs from the room, but she wasn’t really joking. And you’d realize why if you took some time to learn about Lazor. Five years ago, after failing to qualify for Rio, she retired. A year later, she returned to the sport, but, “If you told me four years ago, when I came back to the sport, that I’d be an Olympic medalist, I think everyone and myself would probably be pretty crazy,” she said

Yet here she was, a 26-year-old from Detroit, sitting halfway across the world as the third-best woman on the planet at what she does. That’s worth celebrating. Stories are worth celebrating. Every Olympian has one, and every Olympic medalist has a remarkable one, of dedication and refinement and beating odds. Even Ledecky, who won silver in her first event here but doubted whether she’d ever swim 3:57 in the 400-meter free again, has one specific to that accomplishment.

She overcame. She was beaten by greatness that she herself had inspired, but she was still great nonetheless, and every Olympian, each in her or his own way, is.

“There's so many Olympians that have won silver or bronze that are really happy with that, and are deserving of a lot of praise,” Ledecky said earlier this week. “Just because I won golds all the time leading into [my silver medal-winning race] doesn't mean that the silver doesn't mean something to me.”

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