Seventeen-year-old Lydia Jacoby of Seward became an Olympic champion in dramatic fashion Monday in Japan to become the first American woman to win a gold medal in swimming at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
In third place midway through the women’s 100-meter breaststroke, Jacoby unleashed what has now become her signature fast finish to surge to a stunning victory at the Tokyo Aquatics Center.
She captured the gold in a time of 1 minute, 4.95 seconds. To prevail, she had to beat Olympic record-holder Tatjana Schoenmaker of South Africa (silver in 1:05.22) and world record-holder Lilly King of the United States (bronze in 1:05.54).
After seeing the results on the scoreboard, Jacoby -- Alaska’s first Olympic swimmer -- showed a look of surprise before swimming over to hug Schoenmaker and King, the 2016 Olympic champion. Then she smiled and waved to the crowd.
“It was crazy,” she told reporters in Tokyo. “I was definitely racing for a medal. I knew I had it in me. I wasn’t really expecting a gold medal, so when I looked up and saw that scoreboard it was insane.”
So was the scene in her hometown of Seward, a town of 3,000 on Resurrection Bay. About 400 people gathered for a watch party at the Alaska Railroad terminal, where they waved red foam fingers that said “GO LYDIA.”
Jacoby was in third place -- .33 of a second behind Schoenmaker -- at the turn, and during the final 50 meters almost no one watching in Seward was sitting down. When results appeared on the big TV screen showing that Jacoby had won gold, the crowd was thundering and the foam fingers were twirling.
In Tokyo, during an interview with NBC, Jacoby was shown footage of the watch party as well as video of her mom and dad, Leslie and Rich Jacoby, who watched the race at a gathering of Olympic parents in Orlando, Florida.
“Thank you for all the support and everything over these years,” Jacoby said. “It’s been amazing.”
Jacoby, who still has one more year of high school, is Alaska’s first Olympic swimmer -- and, on paper, an unlikely champion.
Alaska only has one Olympic-sized swimming pool, and it’s 125 miles away from Seward at Anchorage’s Bartlett High. And the Seward Tsunami Swim Club, where Jacoby has trained since she was about 6, isn’t a year-round program.
But that didn’t hold back Jacoby, who hopes her success can spark other small-town swimmers.
“A lot of big-name swimmers come from big powerhouse clubs. I think me coming from a small club in a state with such a small population really shows that you can do it no matter where you’re from,” she said after her win.
Jacoby is the 15th athlete from Alaska to win an Olympic medal -- a list that begins with Anchorage rower Kris Thorsness, who won a gold medal in women’s 8s at the 1984 Summer Olympics. Prior to Jacoby, the latest entry on the list was 2018 Winter Olympics gold medalist Kikkan Randall, a cross-country skier from Anchorage.
Jacoby advanced to Monday’s finals by placing second in her preliminary heat (Schoenmaker won it with an Olympic record time) and winning her semifinal heat. Yet heading into the finals, all eyes were on Schoenmaker and King, the reigning Olympic champion.
“This kid just had the race of her life and I am so proud of her,” a gracious King said after the race.
It’s likely that Jacoby’s Olympics aren’t over -- she’s a good bet to swim on the women’s 400-meter medley relay team. Preliminaries are early Friday morning on July 30 and the finals are Saturday night on July 31.
There’s also a mixed-gender medley relay race -- it’s a new event -- so Jacoby could contend for a medal there too. Relay teams aren’t announced until the day of the race, a U.S. Swimming spokesman said last week.
At Monday’s medal ceremony, an official presented a mask-wearing Jacoby with her medal on a tray. She picked it up and put it around her neck -- part of the COVID-19 protocols in Tokyo.
She barely moved a muscle through the playing of the national anthem (a song she has sung at local swim meets). NBC’s split-screen coverage showed the medal ceremony in Japan and Jacoby’s parents watching in Orlando.
As for Seward, someone there might want to update all of those ‘Go Lydia go” signs displayed by businesses all over town. “Gold Lydia gold” has a nice ring.
ADN reporters Morgan Krakow and Emily Mesner contributed from Seward.
Alaskans who have won medals in the Olympics
1984 Summer Olympics -- Kris Thorsness, gold medal, rowing (Anchorage)
1988 Summer Olympics -- Andrea Lloyd Curry, gold medal, basketball (Juneau, Sitka)
1992 Winter Olympics -- Hilary Lindh, silver medal, downhill (Juneau)
1994 Winter Olympics -- Tommy Moe, gold medal in downhill, silver medal in super-G (Palmer, Girdwood)
1996 Summer Olympics -- Michele Granger, gold medal, softball (Anchorage)
2000 Summer Olympics -- Passion Richardson, bronze medal, track (Fairbanks)
2004 Summer Olympics -- Matt Emmons, gold medal, riflery (Fairbanks/UAF)
2004 Summer Olympics -- Carlos Boozer, bronze medal, basketball (Juneau)
2006 Winter Olympics -- Rosey Fletcher, bronze medal, snowboarding (Girdwood)
2006 Winter Olympics -- Pam Dreyer, bronze medal, hockey (Eagle River)
2008 Summer Olympics -- Carlos Boozer, gold medal, basketball (Juneau)
2008 Summer Olympics -- Matt Emmons, gold medal, riflery (Fairbanks/UAF)
2008 Summer Olympics -- Corey Cogdell, bronze medal, trapshooting (Eagle River)
2010 Winter Olympics -- Kerry Weiland, silver medal, hockey (Palmer)
2012 Summer Olympics -- Jamie Beyerlie, gold medal, riflery (Fairbanks/UAF)
2012 Summer Olympics -- Matt Emmons, bronze medal, riflery (Fairbanks/UAF)
2016 Summer Olympics -- Corey Cogdell, bronze medal, trapshooting (Eagle River)
2018 Winter Olympics -- Kikkan Randall, gold medal, cross-country skiing (Anchorage)
2020 Summer Olympics -- Lydia Jacoby, gold medal, swimming (Seward)