Tokyo, Japan (AP) - Alaska’s first Olympic swimmer, Seward High School Seahawk class of ’22 - and Seaward Tsunami Swim Club member - Lydia Jacoby, age 17, won Alaska’s first Olympic swimming gold medal on Tuesday morning in Japan, touching the wall in the 100 meter breaststroke in one minute 04.95 seconds.
"I was definitely racing for a medal,” Jacoby told Olympic media. “I knew I had it in me. I wasn't really expecting a gold medal, so when I looked up and saw the scoreboard it was insane."
Jacoby overtook South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker in the closing meters to send shock waves through the Tokyo Aquatics Center, where Jacoby’s American teammate, Lilly King, had arrived to defend her Olympic title.
Schoenmaker got the silver .27 seconds behind Jacoby in 1.05.22 and King, age 24, got the bronze in 1:05.54.
As Jacoby touched the wall and looked up, she looked stunned. King swam over, holding her hands and slapping the water in joy.
King, 24, still holds the world record, which she set in 2017 at 1 minute 4.13 seconds. Jacoby finished in 1:04.95, and King came in at 1:05.54.
“I’m surprisingly OK right now,” King said after the race, adding that she was thrilled for Jacoby. “We love to keep that gold in the U.S.A. family, and this kid just had the swim of her life.”
Jacoby became one of the youngest American swimmers to win an Olympic gold, joining elite company. The only younger United States swimmers to win an individual gold in the past 20 years were Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin.
Jacoby moved to Anchorage earlier this year to train. Her community watched live from Seward, jumping and screaming in joy as No. 1 displayed against her name in the pool. Her parents were at a watch party in Orlando, Florida and went viral when her mother was shown recording the race in Tokyo on her iPad.
Jacoby’s shocking win salvaged what had been a bit of a disappointing morning for the Americans.
Britain went 1-2 in the men’s 200 freestyle. Russia did the same in the men’s 100 backstroke. And the Australian women claimed their second gold of the Tokyo Games.
Through the first three finals, the U.S. had only managed a pair of bronze medals, losing a men’s backstroke race at the Olympics for the first time since 1992.
Then the high schooler came through.
Jacoby was third at the turn, trailing Schoenmaker and King. But, with her head bobbing furiously out of the water, the teenager surged past King and glided to the wall just ahead of the South African.
Looking at the scoreboard with a bit of disbelief, Schoenmaker reached across the lane rope for a hug when the enormity of her accomplishment finally hit. Then it was King bounding over from two lanes away to congratulate America’s new breaststroke queen.
Jacoby’s unique journey has also added a bit of intrigue to a swimmer who is heading into her senior year of high school in one of her country’s most remote outposts.
“She practically swims in iced-over lakes in Alaska,” teammate Gunnar Bentz said.
That’s a bit of a stretch, of course, but Jacoby did had to deal with her local pool closing during the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing her to train about 2 1/2 hours away in the state’s biggest city, Anchorage.
Jacoby never let the hardships get her down.
“She’s so sweet. She’s just a ray of sunshine,” American backstroker Regan Smith said. “I had a ton of confidence in her, absolutely.”
Said King, “I’m so excited for Lydia. I love to see the future of American breaststroke coming up like this and to have somebody to go at it head-to-head in the country. I definitely knew she was a threat and saw a lot of myself in her effort.”
King won gold in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. She owns the world record. Of the five fastest swims in this event this year, she owned four of them.
Seward’s population of 2,773 doesn’t care about past records, only setting new ones.
Jacoby is the first swimmer and only the 10th Olympian to be born in Alaska.
“A lot of big-name swimmers come from big, powerhouse clubs,” Jacoby said. “I think that me coming from a small club, and a state with such a small population, really shows everyone that you can do it no matter where you’re from.”
Seward’s swimming pool is closed as much as it is open. Only Anchorage’s Bartlett High School, where Jacoby sometimes trains, has an Olympic-size pool and they are raising funds through a GoFundMe site to buy new starting blocks.
Before she arrived in Tokyo, Jacoby had never competed in a major international meet and now she is an international sensation.
Jacoby has committed to swim for the University of Texas in the fall of 2022, after she graduates from Seward High.
Jacoby swim facts from Alaska media sources:
1 - She was born on Leap Day.
2 - In a span of three years, she slashed nearly six seconds off her time in the 100-meter breaststroke. At a 2018 meet in California, at age 14, she swam 1:11.05 to win a USA Swimming Futures age-group title. At the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, she swam 1:05.28 to clinch an Olympic berth.
3 - Her pre-pandemic personal-best was 1:08.12. She swam more than ever during the pandemic, even though the only pool in Seward was shut down for months. Jacoby and her mom, Leslie, got an apartment in Anchorage and she trained with the Northern Lights Swim Club through the summer of 2020 and beyond. It was the first time she trained year-round -- the Seward Tsunami Swim Club is a six-month program.
4 - She dropped out of this year’s Mount Marathon junior race. Something else came up that required a trip to Japan.
5 - She plays stand-up bass. She’s a singer and a guitar player too, and she spent a few summers performing at Alaska folk festivals as a member of the Snow River String Band. She hasn’t sung the national anthem at any baseball games, said dad Rich Jacoby, “but she’s done it before a couple of swim meets.”
6 - She became an Olympic dark horse in April with a 1:06.38 at a meet in California, where she placed second to world record holder Lilly King. Afterwards she talked about the prospect of someday catching King: “It’s definitely crazy to think that. But that’s how the sport works. You think about how you can tweak things so you can get closer to the next person. I’ve done that my whole life. It just so happens the next person now is the world record holder. It’s cool.”
7 - Both of her parents, Rich and Leslie, are licensed boat captains in Seward. Rich is a maritime instructor at the Alaska Vocational Technical Center and Leslie is the educational coordinator for a marine science program at Kenai Fjords Tours. Rich also leads expeditions to Antarctica.
8 - She’s 5 feet, 10 inches tall. Her dad is 6-4 and her mom is 5-8.
9 - She qualified for this year’s U.S. Olympic Trials at age 14 by swimming 1:10.45 at a 2018 meet in North Carolina. A month earlier, as a freshman for the Seward Seahawks, she set the Alaska high school state record in the 100-yard breaststroke with a time of 1:03.11. She lowered the record to 1:00.61 in her sophomore year (there was no meet her junior year because of COVID-19).