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Medal moment for Annie Lazor and Lilly King holds special meaning amid tough year

They had been there for each other through tragedy and training, so when Lilly King and Annie Lazor walked off the pool deck at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in triumph, their arms were around each other.

In the background, South Africa’s noisy contingent of coaches and swimmers celebrated Tatjana Schoenmaker’s world record in the 200-meter breaststroke at the Summer Games on Friday.

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But the moment represented much more to King and Lazor, who finished second and third, than the brush with history.

In late April, Lazor’s father, David, died unexpectedly at the family’s home in Michigan.

“He lavished love on his daughter Annie and encouraged her big dreams,” the obituary said. “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.”

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King drove five hours from Bloomington, Ind., where she trains with Lazor at Indiana University, to support her friend.

“She has been there for me in ways I can’t even describe,” Lazor said after qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team last month. “Words kind of fall short, to be quite honest with you. But you know what? She is my family outside my family. The people that I train with every day are my family.”

South Africa's Tatjana Schoenmaker is congratulated by teammate Kaylene Corbet, Lilly King and Annie Lazor.

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South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker, second right, is congratulated by teammate Kaylene Corbett, right, and U.S. swimmers Lilly King and Annie Lazor after winning gold in the women’s 200-meter breaststroke Friday.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Lazor had stepped away from swimming after failing to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. She worked in UC Berkeley’s athletic department but found herself missing the sport and didn’t want to look back in five or 10 years and regret having quit too soon. With King’s blessing, she ended up at Indiana in 2018.

Though the Crocs-wearing, world record-owning King is known as one of the sport’s most ferocious competitors, she seemed to assume the mission of helping Lazor qualify for the Games after her father’s death. After Lazor edged King in the 200 breaststroke at trials last month, Lazor appeared in shock while King celebrated her friend’s victory as if an Olympic gold medal had been won.

In the weeks since, Lazor has continued grieving — she called the death the “worst thing to ever happen” to her — while experiencing “the best part of my life so far” in making the Olympics.

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The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games logo is seen in Tokyo on January 28, 2021.

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“Everything is so great and new and amazing, but then one day it just hits you,” Lazor said. “Nothing prepares you for that.”

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On Friday, Schoenmaker finished in 2 minutes 18.95 seconds. King, fighting off the disappointment of a third-place finish earlier in the week in the 100 breaststroke, her best event, was a little less than a second behind.

“I’m really glad I could come back and have what seemed like the swim of my life there,” King said.

In other finals, Ryan Murphy, the defending gold medalist in the 200 backstroke, settled for silver behind Russia’s Evgeny Rylov, who set an Olympic record.

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Meanwhile, Michael Andrew’s best chance for an individual medal ended in disappointment. Using his traditionally strong start, he led after the first leg of the 200 individual medley, fell to fifth, then regained the lead after a strong breaststroke leg. Everything fell apart in the final 50 meters of freestyle.

Andrew, who has enough sprinting ability to swim in the 50 freestyle this week, dropped to fifth place in a race that included six national record holders.
China’s Wang Shun won the race in 1:55, almost 2 1/2 seconds in front of Andrew.

U.S. swimmer Michael Andrew pauses after finishing fifth in the 200-meter individual medley on Friday.

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U.S. swimmer Michael Andrew pauses after finishing fifth in the 200-meter individual medley on Friday.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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A day after winning his first individual medal, Caeleb Dressel cruised to the top time in the 100 butterfly semifinals.

He holds the world record in the event and, for good measure, clocked the third-fastest time in history to set an Olympic record Friday.

But the triumph, in and out of the pool, belonged to King and Lazor.

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“When the pressure is on that’s when she shines the brightest,” Lazor said. “For a lot of people that can kind of be intimidating. Over the last couple years that’s shifted into being something a comfort for me because that’s what I see every day.”

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