YORKTOWN, Ind. – Emily Weiss is a teen phenom. She is a Hoosier, breaststroker, competitor, champion.
She’s . . .
“She’s my replacement. She’s the next Lilly,” Lilly King said.
That kid who pestered you at summer camp? Who was 72nd at the Olympic Trials just 16 months ago? Who used to crush softballs, not swim records?
Oh yes. There is some Lilly in Emily.
They share humble beginnings. Weiss trains in Yorktown High School’s 50-year-old, six-lane pool. King trained in Lloyd Pool, the only public indoor pool in Evansville, swimming around others because it was so crowded.
Weiss, 16, a junior, broke the state record last February in the 100-yard breaststroke. Previous record was by King.
Weiss has one gold medal, won at August’s World Junior Championships in Indianapolis. King has 10, won from August 2016 to July 2017 at the Olympics and two worlds.
Weiss has committed to Indiana University, where she would be coming off her freshman year before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. That is King’s lane, considering she was coming off her first IU season before Rio de Janeiro 2016.
Yet Weiss is not King’s mini-me. For inspiration, the Yorktown swimmer does not watch videos of King, but of retired breaststroker Rebecca Soni. Weiss can be heard quoting lines by late comedian Chris Farley from the movie “Tommy Boy,” not calling out a Russian for doping.
Besides, idolizing someone does not feel right if you are pals texting each other.
“I try not to think about it too much,” Weiss said of comparisons to King. “If you really get that idea in your head, you might get a little pressure and start getting a little nervous. I just think of her as a friend.”
Weiss, then 12, first met King at a camp for young swimmers in Crawfordsville. King, 16, a member of the junior national team, was a camp counselor.
Weiss was drawn to the older breaststroker, and “we just kind of clicked,” King said.
That was before she was the Lilly King: Olympic champion, world record-holder, Cold War instigator.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is cool. Got a new friend,’” Weiss said. “And then I realized who she was, it’s really cool that through the years we still have a pretty strong relationship.”
It is strong enough that King, in the middle of college classes and training, traveled from Bloomington to watch Weiss at August’s junior worlds. Weiss said that “actually calmed me down.”
That is something Tony Santino is attempting to do, too.
Santino, 45, a technology education teacher at Wes-Del High School, coaches Weiss at Yorktown and at Muncie’s Cardinal Community Swim Club. Weiss has had such a swift rise that the coach interjects perspective.
Santino reminds her: You are not Lilly King; you have not done it yet.
“And those are hard things to say,” Santino said. “It’s not that I’m not sitting here going, ‘Oh yeah, you were a world champion.’ But as I always tell her, I can’t focus on the past. I have to look toward the future.”
The past foretold something about her future.
Weiss has a twin brother, Sean. There was occasional sibling rivalry, but that was mitigated because the two are so different in personality and interests. (Sean is a runner.) Emily once was the only girl on her brother’s basketball team, and her preferred method of sliding in softball was head-first.
Weiss’ parents, Jon and Lois, enrolled their daughter in a swim club because she loved the water on family vacations. Swimming became a way to hang around friends, but when she saw top finishers on the podium, that began to change. She “wanted to be where they were,” her father said.
She started at Yorktown Swim Club before switching to Cardinal. She set an age-group state record in 2014 when she was 12, beating the favorite. That changed her outlook.
In 2016, she became the first freshman to win the 100-yard breaststroke at state since Center Grove’s Michelle McKeehan in 2005. Weiss qualified for the Olympic Trials, but nearly 1,000 other swimmers did, too. Even at age 15, to finish 72nd at Omaha, Neb., was inauspicious.
It was “pretty humbling,” her mother said. Yet it was necessary, too.
“I wasn’t happy with the outcome, but I’m still so happy that I got to go and experience everything,” Weiss said. “Seeing everything I needed to see in order to achieve more in the future.”
She kept lowering times and finished second at junior nationals in December. Then came her momentous 2017: breaking King’s state record, making the U.S. junior team, winning gold in the 50-meter breaststroke and silver in the medley relay at junior worlds.
Social component of the sport was reactivated when Weiss made friends with swimmers from other nations, and she continues to correspond with some through texting and Snapchat. But if she was focused before, she is more so now.
“I take everything I do so much more seriously than I did a year ago. Everything I’m putting in and getting out of swimming, I keep it in my mind and think about it. Everything I put in my body to eat, I’m thinking about that.
“I’m having just a gold-medal mind-set, wherever I’m going, whatever I’m doing,” she said,
Pinned to the top of her Twitter account (@Swimmin_weiss2) is a photo of a book she is reading, “The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive,” by Jim Afremow.
She swims up to 40,000 yards a week, or 22 miles. That includes morning practices at 5:40 and weightlifting at 6. Coaches call her a “monster” in the weight room, with strength manifested in 50 uninterrupted pull-ups. It is another way to push herself, she said, although nothing compares to racing.
“When you see another person right beside you, and you both have a chance to do something great,” Weiss said.
Weiss has helped revive a swimming tradition at Yorktown.
Longtime elite coach Pam (Garrett) Swander swam and coached here. Purdue assistant J. Agnew coached Yorktown’s girls to second in the state behind Carmel in 2006, and fourth in 2004. Maggie Bird and Kelsi Hall were three-time state champions in the 2000s. In 2004, Eric Mattingly set a boys state record in the 50-yard freestyle that stood for seven years.
Yorktown’s girls finished 14th at state last season. Unlike elsewhere, Indiana’s state meet is consequential, with nationally relevant times and large crowds.
“The state meet for high school is amazing,” Weiss said.
So she has intermediate steps to take before the next Olympic Trials. One is to break the national high school record of 58.56 in the 100-yard breaststroke. (Weiss’ state record is 59.37.) Another is to win a state title in the 200 individual medley, in which she was fifth.
She does not train solely in breaststroke, something else she has in common with King.
“Sometimes working those other strokes makes the predominant stroke better,” Santino said.
USA Swimming helps coaches organize four-year plans, so that is what Santino is doing for Weiss. She has a Yorktown team around her, including trainer and strength coach.
King will be a senior in 2019 and thus won’t be Weiss’ college teammate. But King plans to stay in Bloomington, where she would be a 2020 training partner.
IU coach Ray Looze is not allowed to comment on high school prospects, but what he has in mind is obvious: To make King and Weiss the two Americans swimming 100-meter breaststroke at the Tokyo Olympics. And the goal is “to perform well in Tokyo, not just make the team,” Santino said.
Weiss keeps posters and pictures from the last Olympic Trials in her room of the family’s Muncie home. She said she thinks about 2020 “more than anyone would think.” A recent Twitter post announced that there is 1,000 days until the Tokyo Olympics.
“I saw that, and I was like, ‘Yeah. YEAH!” she said, raising her voice.
She will be around Olympic gold medalists Sunday in the Golden Goggle Awards, an Academy Awards-style show at the JW Marriott in Los Angeles. She is not nominated in any category but was invited by USA Swimming.
King, the 2016 Breakout Performer of the Year, will be there as a five-time nominee. She said it will be “pretty special” to have Weiss practicing in the same pool. King suggested the two share the same racing personality . . . but that’s all.
“Normal Emily and normal Lilly are not very similar,” King said. “I’m definitely, I’m just . . . I’m a lot to handle. She’s a lot more calm and reserved than I am, which is probably not a bad thing.”
Paradoxically, timing might be a good thing for Weiss. She would be 19 at Tokyo, and eight of the past 12 Olympic champions in the 100-meter breaststroke were teenagers. King would be 23, and only one gold medalist in the event was older. None has ever repeated as gold medalist.
If it came down to those two, there would be no international incident. But would be an Indiana moment of the ages, and for the ages.