When Annie Lazor didn’t make the U.S. Olympic swim team in 2016, just a few months after graduating from Auburn, she thought the dream was over. She took a job in the athletic department at the University of California at Berkeley and helped its swimmers follow their dreams.
But in the back of her mind, something was nagging. She wanted to compete. As a breaststroker, she reached out to the coach who had helped another breaststroker to win Olympic gold: Ray Looze, the head coach at Indiana. He was working with Lilly King, the two-time gold medalist at the Rio Games. When Lazor asked to join them for training, Looze checked with King first. King said OK, Lazor gave it a one-week try and, before long, King and Lazor were swimming next to each other, pushing each other every day.
“I knew that if I was missing it at all, that I didn't want to look five or 10 years down the road and regret not coming back in a time that I could. I can work at a desk all my life, but I can't swim all my life,” she said after qualifying for the Tokyo Games in the 200-meter breaststroke. “From that point on, it was a pretty easy decision. The road to get here was far from easy, but I had an amazing support staff and teammates that decided to take this journey with me.”
Training at Indiana worked out well for Lazor. She won three gold medals at the Pan-American Games in 2019, proving that the time she put in practicing next to King was paying off. When swimming pools were shut down due to the pandemic, King and Lazor found a way to swim next to each other — in ponds.
And when Lazor lost her father in May, it was King that was next to her again.
“She has been there for me in ways I can't even describe. Words kind of fall short, to be quite honest with you," Lazor said. "But you know what? She is my family outside my family. The people that I train with every day are my family.
"The last few months for me have been far from easy, but she has dragged me through the mud and pushed me every day and distracted me. And before we got up for the 200 breast, she told me she loved me and 'Let's just do this,' and that was all I needed to hear.”
It was appropriate that, at the Olympic Trials in Omaha last month, King and Lazor were in lanes next to each other in the 200 breaststroke. King had already qualified in the 100 breaststroke. Lazor had fallen short in that race, finishing third.
The race was tight, and in the final 50 meters, Lazor took the lead.
“I hit the 150 wall and I was like, 'Oh, I'm a little bit ahead.' I'm usually not ahead at the 150, so I kind of knew I would be there, and to look up and see Lilly right there, it was just like practice every day," Lazor said. "It was a great feeling to have it be here on one of the biggest stages, but in reality I wanted to make it feel exactly like practice."
When Lazor touched the wall first, King celebrated her teammate with more joy than when she had won the 100m. The two had made the U.S. Olympic team together. The relationship that started with a one-week tryout in Bloomington had helped propel them both to Tokyo.
“I just knew it was not a one-person effort; it's a whole team effort, so I wanted to make sure that everyone who was a part of it was getting the same amount of celebration that I had, because it took so many people for me to even be sitting here right now,” Lazor said. “I just wanted to make sure they got all the same credit that I was feeling, that I had myself.”