In the moments before her latest breakthrough performance, 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby of Seward stood in the sunshine with the world-class swimmers she was about to face in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke finals at the TYR Pro Swim Series last week in Mission Viejo, California.
One of them was Lilly King, the world record-holder and reigning Olympic champion. When Jacoby raced against King about a year ago, “I really couldn’t even touch her at that point,” Jacoby recalled.
Now Jacoby and King were the top two qualifiers for the Friday morning finals, and instead of putting on their game faces and waiting silently to be called to the starting blocks, they chatted like old friends.
“They made us stand in the sun for three heats and we’re both fair-skinned, so we were talking about how much we were burning,” Jacoby said. “We were comparing notes on SPF 15 versus 30.”
Whatever sunblock they decided on, it didn’t prevent blistering performances.
King won the finals with the second-fastest time in the world this year (she swam the year’s fastest time in the preliminaries) and Jacoby shook up the swim world by placing second with the sixth-fastest time in the world this year.
With the Olympic Trials two months away, Jacoby propelled herself to darkhorse status with two swift swims that shaved more than a second off her previous-best time of 1:07.57.
In Thursday’s preliminaries, Jacoby broke the 67-second barrier by registering a time of 1:06.99.
In the next morning’s finals, she swam 1:06.38. The time makes Jacoby the 14th fastest U.S. woman in history in the event and ranks third in the national 17-18 age-group rankings, putting her a scant .63 off the national age-group record of 1:05.75 set in 2009.
Not bad for someone who turned 17 last month. And who didn’t taper coming into the California meet.
“I was not rested,” Jacoby said in a Tuesday interview. “I was not tapered at all for the meet, so I was hoping to drop into the high 1:06s, so it was kind of a surprise.
“I was more ready than I thought I was physically. And just being in that atmosphere, with over half my heat being Olympians and the world record-holder, it was just exciting and that makes me want to go fast.”
No swimmer from Alaska has ever qualified for the U.S. Olympic team, and this summer’s Tokyo Games might seem like a long shot for a high school junior who lives in a place where the only pool in town was shut down for months during the pandemic.
Jacoby, a member of Seward’s Tsunami Swim Club, divides her time between Seward and Anchorage, where she and her mom rent a small apartment so Jacoby can get pool time with the Northern Lights Swim Club.
It’s a unique situation, Jacoby said, but it works. She has dramatically lowered her times during the pandemic.
And she has gained attention along the way. NBC Sports last week reported that “a 17-year-old Alaskan rocketed into the Olympic discussion,” and Swimming World Magazine called Jacoby “a rising star in the sport.”
“It’s definitely crazy having gone from 16th (in the American rankings) to all of a sudden to be in the top 3,” Jacoby said. “Having people that I don’t even know talk about my stats, it’s hard to take it all in, but it’s very satisfying. This is what I’ve been working for. It’s a big deal to see all the time and effort paying off. But it’s definitely a lot to take in.”
Jacoby has another year of high school left before she joins the University of Texas swim team as a prized recruit. She’s said she’ll swim in a couple of meets in Alaska before she begins tapering for the Olympic Trials, which begin June 13 in Omaha, Nebraska. The top two finishers in each event will make the Olympic team.
King, who set the world record of 1:04.13 in 2017, is the clear frontrunner for one spot. The battle for the second spot is less clear, especially now that Jacoby has entered the picture.
“I’d really like to make the Olympic team,” Jacoby said, “but I also know that it’s important to remember I am only 17 and I’ve got my whole career ahead of me.
“I’m in a really good position since I’m so young,” she added. “I’m still in a position where every time I swim a race, I learn more about it and I learn more about my body and how to maximize it.
“I’m still changing so much mentally and physically, and I think that’s a huge advantage for me. A lot of people would say that’s a disadvantage going into the Trials where I’ll be competing against pro athletes and people who have so much more experience, but I think a lot of them would give a lot to be in my position and still have a lot to learn about their swimming.”
In last week’s finals in California, King won in 1:05.70 after jumping to an early lead. Jacoby swam the fastest final split to narrow the gap — and to give her something new to shoot for.
“If I can nail that front half of my race, I think I can get even closer to her,” Jacoby said of 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.”
2020-21 top performers (100 meter breaststroke)
1. Lilly King, U.S., 1:05.32 (March 27)
2. Tatjana Schoenmaker, Russia, 1:05.74 (April 11)
3. Martina Carraro, Italy, 1:05.86 (April 2)
4. Benedetta Pilato, Italy, 1:06.00 (April 2)
4. Arianna Castiglioni, Italy, 1:06.00 (April 2)
6. Sophie Hansson, Sweden, 1:06.17 (April 11)
7. Lydia Jacoby, U.S., 1:06.38 (April 9)
8. Tang Qianting, China, 1:06.39 (March 5)
9. Evgenia Chikunova, Russia, 1:06.63 (Oct. 28)
10. Reona Aoki, Japan, 1:06.71 (Dec. 3)
All-time top U.S. performers (100 meter breaststroke)
1. Lilly King, 1:04.13 (2017) (world record)
2. Jessica Hardy, 1:04.45 (2009)
3. Rebecca Soni, 1:04.84 (2009)
4. Katie Meili, 1:05.03 (2017)
5. Katy Freeman, 1:05.35 (2009)
6. Kasey Carlson, 1:05.75 (2009)
7. Molly Hannis, 1:05.78 (2018)
8. Breeja Larson , 1:05.92 (2012)
9. Annie Lazor, 1:06.02 (2019)
10. Megan Jendrick, 1:06.22 (2009)
11. Sarah Haase, 1:06.31 (2016)
12. (tie) Tara Kirk/Micah Sumrall — 1:06.34 (2007/2018)
14. Lydia Jacoby, 1:06.38 (2021)
15. Bethany Galat, 1:06. 41 (2018)