Alaska Life

Behind the gold medal: the Seward swim moms who supported Lydia Jacoby all the way to the Olympic podium

Look behind any elite athlete and you’ll find an ironclad support system.

In the case of Olympic gold and silver medalist Lydia Jacoby of Seward, you’ll find a dedicated group of families and, specifically, swim moms.

They’re the snack-suppliers, the drivers, the cheering section, the chaperones and often the volunteer race officials clicking stopwatches and looking for a technical mistake that could lead to a swimmer’s disqualification.

And being a swim mom in Seward, where Jacoby grew up, is an especially unique experience.

Meets often take place far away from the town of about 2,700 on the Kenai Peninsula. The closest competition is 90 miles away and many are much farther, which means long drives and sometimes flights and ferries. Sarah Spanos, one of the swim moms, said she has often found herself at the helm of a rented van, swimmers packed into the back rows.

And that’s just getting to the meet. Then the marathon-like event starts, from warm-ups through each heat and relay race. That means Spanos and others have spent countless hours watching Jacoby swim.

“It’s family,” Spanos said. “Being a swim mom, you’re a mom to a whole family of swimmers.”

Now, they aren’t just swim moms. They’re swim moms to an Olympic champion.

“She was mine, you know?” Spanos said. “I know Rich and Leslie are her biological parents but every swim mom from Seward that sat on the bleachers year after year after year, that was their Lydia that was swimming.”

After 17-year-old Jacoby won the 100-meter breaststroke on July 26 at the Tokyo Olympics, Spanos cried for 15 minutes.

“All those moms are my moms,” said 18-year-old Kylie Mullaly, one of Jacoby’s teammates. “I’ve gone up to the bleachers after a race and said, ‘Oh I’m hungry,’ and I turn around and there’s five moms giving me carrots and granola bars and whatever they have to make sure that I’m fed and taken care of.”

Jacoby’s mom is a swim mom too. Leslie Jacoby is president of the Seward Tsunami Swim Club and a race official on the pool deck. Her dad, Rich Jacoby, is at every meet.

Nita Hollingsworth won’t say she taught Jacoby to swim, but she did teach her to blow bubbles in the water.

Hollingsworth, 43, grew up swimming in Seward -- she was an inaugural member of the Seward Tsunami Swim Club as an 8-year-old, and these days she teaches pre-school aged children just learning to swim.

“I absolutely love it -- teaching those kids to love the water -- it’s a lot of fun,” said Hollingsworth, whose son is a former teammate of Jacoby’s.

Right before Jacoby’s 100-meter breaststroke final, Hollingsworth and a few other parents at the now-famous Seward watch party stood in the back of the Alaska Railroad terminal, visibly anxious.

“(The) moms were so nervous, because we knew she could do it,” Hollingsworth said.

It was the swim moms who planned the watch party that produced one of the enduring moments of the Tokyo Olympics. Jennifer Anderson and Stephanie Mullaly first discussed the idea while doing Seward’s First Friday art walk in early July, after Jacoby had made the U.S. Olympic team.

The two have known Jacoby since she was a toddler. Jacoby’s parents were part of a group, along with Mullaly, Anderson and others, known as “co-op families.”

The group shared childcare, Anderson said. They’d take kids out for activities like a hike, sometimes 20 kids with three moms, she said.

First, it was carpooling to library story time, but as the kids got older, it turned into swim lessons and then swim team, she said.

“And then we’d all travel together,” Anderson said. “And we’d all sit in the bleachers together.”

[Seward erupts for joy as hometown swimmer Lydia Jacoby wins Olympic gold medal]

The bond formed over all those years and all those meets was on display during Jacoby’s gold-medal race. A watch-party crowd of 400 turned thunderous and the co-op kids and other kids stomped, shouted and jumped for joy as Jacoby stormed into the lead.

The kids are like a bunch of cousins, Mullaly said. Her daughter agreed.

“It’s amazing,” Kylie Mullaly said. “Because especially in Alaska, you kind of make your own family. And it’s awesome that I have this huge family — and all swimmers do — to take care of us.”


Related:

Lydia Jacoby’s journey to the Olympics started with a breakout performance at age 10. The pandemic helped her train even harder.

Lydia Jacoby: 10 things to know about Alaska’s Olympic gold medal swimmer

Lydia Jacoby: 5 (more) things to know about Alaska’s two-time Olympic medalist

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