TOKYO — Lydia Jacoby, a 17-year-old bass-playing, bluegrass-singing Alaskan who 18 months ago planned to come to these Olympics on family vacation, stunned reigning gold medalist Lilly King in the 100-meter breaststroke here on Tuesday.
Jacoby outraced King, the world-record holder, and South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker. She touched in 1:04.95, a few tenths ahead of the favorites, and turned to see a “1” on the scoreboard next to her name. Her mouth jolted agape. Her eyes, hidden by pink goggles, bulged.
“It was insane,” she said.
Back in Seward, Alaska, her hometown, a gym full of Jacoby's high school classmates celebrated wildly.
— Team USA (@TeamUSA) July 27, 2021
Jacoby is the daughter of boat captains, who put her in swimming at age 6 in the 3,000-person port city, not to produce an Olympian but simply to ensure Lydia’s safety around the water. Alaska, after all, had never produced an Olympic swimmer, much less a champion. Jacoby, until last month, never had access to an Olympic-length pool.
During the pandemic, after two months out of the water, Lydia and her mother moved two hours north to Anchorage just to access a 25-yard pool. They first stayed at the former home of Lydia’s grandfather, who’d recently passed away. Then they moved into an Airbnb, renting from another swim family.
At the time, Jacoby was unknown to most in international swimming. She was a sophomore at Seward High School, known for her athletic prowess but also for her musical talent. She and a few friends formed the Snow River String Band, and traveled to music festivals around Alaska to perform. In addition to the upright bass, Jacoby also plays the guitar and piano.
At the midway point of her sophomore year, Jacoby was a talented 15-year-old swimmer but nowhere near King’s world-leading times. Her personal-best in the 100 breast ranked 18th in the U.S. in 2019.
Which is why her parents planned a family trip to Tokyo for the Olympics; prior to COVID, Lydia qualifying for them was out of the question.
"I was going to swim at trials [in 2020], but a year ago I didn't have a real shot of making the team,” Jacoby said. “So yeah, we had tickets to Tokyo, we were gonna come watch."
That personal best was 1:08.12. Jacoby chipped away at it in Anchorage last summer, training twice per day for the first time in her life. She lowered it to 1:05.28 at U.S. Olympic trials in June, qualifying behind King, who remained a seemingly untouchable favorite. Calls and texts inundated Jacoby’s phone that night, so much so that she had to turn it off.
But the Olympics, surely, seemed a bridge too far. King, when not disqualified, hadn’t lost this race in five and a half years. She shattered a world record at the world championships in 2017. At times, she talked as if she felt unchallenged.
Then along came Schoenmaker, the South African, who broke King’s Olympic record in preliminary heats, and bettered King in the semifinals by 0.33 seconds to earn the top seed in Tuesday’s final.
And along came Jacoby, a University of Texas commit who few considered a real contender for gold. Even Jacoby herself didn’t. "I was definitely racing for a medal. I knew I had it in me,” she said. “I wasn't really expecting a gold medal.”
King, who's been known to not take losses well, seemed to take this one in stride. She sat at a news conference alongside Jacoby chowing down on a massive post-race meal. Jacoby, guzzling a protein drink, mentioned that she’d watched King’s 2016 gold-medal swim on TV as a 12-year-old back in Seward. “She makes me feel so old,” King joked.
King also took a few questions immediately after exiting the pool. “I'm surprisingly OK right now,” she said. “Very happy with my race, and so excited for Lydia," and around that point, Jacoby arrived in the interview zone. Attention shifted. Reporters went silent, wanting to talk to the newly crowned champ.
"Off to you kiddo," King said.
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