Lydia Jacoby celebrates winning gold with third-placed Lilly King during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo.
TOKYO – Add another Alaska Gold Rush to the history books after Lydia Jacoby’s surprise win at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
The 17-year-old from Seward (population 2,773) came from behind to surge to victory in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke Tuesday.
Not only is Jacoby the first swimmer from Alaska to win a gold medal, she’s also the first to even make the Olympic swimming team.
“It’s huge,” Jacoby said. “I think a lot of big-name swimmers come from big powerhouse clubs and I think that me coming from a small club in a state with such a small population really shows everyone that you can do it no matter where you’re from.”
While a Team USA swimmer was favored in the race, that was Lilly King, the reigning Olympic champion and world record holder, not Jacoby, who was second at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Swimming in June.
Jacoby was third at 50 meters, then pulled ahead of King and, in the final 10 meters, overtook Tatjana Schoenmaker of South Africa, who had set the Olympic record in the semifinal Monday.
“It was crazy,” said Jacoby, whose power comes from her incredible kick. “I was definitely racing for a medal. I knew that I had it in me. I wasn’t really expecting a gold medal. When I looked up and saw the scoreboard, it was insane.”
She put her hand over her mouth as she saw that she had clocked a personal best of 1 minute 4.95 seconds for the gold. Schoenmaker took the silver at 1:05.22 and King secured the bronze in 1:05.54, well off her world record of 1:04.13.
Jacoby was the only Team USA Olympic champion of the day after Regan Smith and Ryan Murphy each won bronze medals in the 100-meter backstrokes.
Alaska’s motto is “The Last Frontier,” and a swimming gold medal must have seemed an impossible dream, especially with only one 50-meter pool in the entire state - and that’s not the one in which Jacoby trains.
But maybe her performance was written in the stars. The first time prospectors struck gold in Alaska led to the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896, the year the Modern Olympic Games began. And Jacoby’s childhood swim club includes a Japanese name: the Seward Tsunami Swim Club.
Jacoby’s parents are both licensed boat captains and her father teaches at a maritime school while her mother is the educational coordinator for a marine science program at Kenai Fjords Tours in Seward.
Their home is on Resurrection Bay and Jacoby began swimming so she would be safe on the family sailboat. She joined the swim club at age 6 and knew she had a future in the sport when she broke her first state record at age 12.
“I have been representing my state for a long time,” Jacoby said. “Now to have the whole country behind me as well is huge.”
Before the pandemic, the Jacoby family had been planning to attend the Tokyo Olympics as spectators.
“A year ago I didn’t really have a real shot at making the team,” Jacoby said.
But in the past two years she has dropped about 5 seconds off her time in the event.
King, 24, knew about Jacoby from a swim camp at her alma mater, Indiana University. “I wanted to help her out as much as I could,” King said, adding with a laugh. “Unfortunately, I helped her out too much.”
Jacoby will be a high school senior this year before going on to the University of Texas, which won an intense recruiting war.
Because the 25-yard pool in Seward closed during the pandemic, Jacoby’s family rented an apartment in Anchorage, which is about two hours away, so she could train. That pool is L-shaped - 25 yards one way and 25 meters the other.
“To be honest, I was a lot more nervous for semifinals than I was for this race,” Jacoby said. “I definitely let my nerves get the better of me going into my swim yesterday morning. I was just trying to channel my energy in a more positive way this morning.”
And she didn’t let King, who tries to psyche out her opponents, intimidate her. When King lost Monday in the Olympic semis to Schoenmaker, that was her first long-course loss since 2016. Now she has lost two in a row.
“I wouldn’t say anything didn’t work today,” King said of her pre-race strategy. “I’m proud to win a bronze medal for my country. Just because my best swim wasn’t today doesn’t mean I did something wrong.”
King said she loved keeping the gold in the Team USA family, and held up Jacoby’s arm as the champion while they were still in the pool.
“This kid just had the swim of her life,” she said. “I definitely knew she was a threat and saw a lot of myself in her.”
Away from the pool, Jacoby, who has long red hair, sings and plays stand-up bass and guitar. She was a member of the Snow River String Band, which played at festivals around Alaska, but the group has since disbanded as the musicians started going to college.
“I still enjoy playing music and it’s a great thing to do,” said Jacoby, who has sung the national anthem before meets and is also a writer, interning at her local paper.
“She’s just a sweetheart,” Smith, 19, said of her fellow teenager. “She’s someone who you want on your team absolutely. She’s just a ray of sunshine. I really love her and I’m so happy for her.”