SEWARD — More than two hours before Alaska swimmer Lydia Jacoby’s big race Monday night at the Tokyo Olympics, Susan Willet waited in her car outside the Alaska Railroad terminal.
Like a lot of people in Seward, the 64-year-old has watched Jacoby emerge from local kid to a world-class athlete. She swims at the same pool where Jacoby has trained for years, and she wanted to be sure to get a good seat at the community watch party.
Hundreds of residents gathered at the terminal to watch Jacoby compete in the 100-meter breaststroke. They streamed inside a little before the race, holding foam fingers emblazoned with “Go Lydia” as the NBC live feed boomed overhead, projected on large screens inside.
The Kenai Peninsula town of around 2,700 on the edge of Resurrection Bay was plastered with praise for Jacoby, the first Alaskan to swim in the Olympics.
A garden greenhouse, a coin-op laundromat, a brewery window as well as storefronts and T-shirts boasted her prowess and wished her luck: “Go Lydia Go!” they read. It may have been harder to find a Seward storefront that didn’t have a sign cheering the teenager.
As the race neared, the TV camera in Tokyo panned to Jacoby. “We’ve got another American here, just 17 years old,” said an NBC announcer. The watch-party crowd erupted, drowning out the commentary.
When it came time to race, the room was frenetic. Cheers rang out and foam fingers were thrust into the air as Jacoby surged into the lead and won the gold medal.
Jacoby’s hometown lost it.
Videos of the crowd reacting swelled with views online as Seward’s excitement rippled across the internet.
Stephanie Mullaly, who helped organize the watch party, let out a celebratory “woo-hoo!”
“Yes! Excitement and just thrill and just like, ‘You did it Lydia,’ ” she said of how she felt.
Some of Jacoby’s friends and teammates were at the watch party to cheer her on.
“One of my best friends is the fastest swimmer in the world right now,” said Hunter Hollingsworth, who grew up swimming with Jacoby.
Hunter’s mom, Nita Hollingsworth, who teaches swimming in Seward and taught Jacoby to blow bubbles as a child learning to swim, said she was headed home to rewatch the race.
“I’m pretty sure I was breathing harder than she was,” Nita said of watching Jacoby’s first-place finish.
Seward may not immediately call to mind competitive swimming, but Jacoby’s coaches said there are reasons the city can breed good swimmers.
“There wasn’t any person in there who didn’t contribute something to that win,” Matt Hershock, one of Jacoby’s coaches, said after the race.
After her victory, Jacoby thanked her community for the years of support.
“A lot of big-name swimmers come from big powerhouse clubs,” Jacoby said. “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.”
Seward is in the midst of commercial fishing and tourism season, so downtown is busy this time of year, even without a hometown Olympic hopeful racing in the finals.
It was so busy, in fact, that Parag Bhangay and Sonali Joshi, on vacation from North Carolina and Massachusetts with their family, couldn’t find a place to eat and were picnicking downtown after arriving from Anchorage that morning.
Bhangay said the group hadn’t heard about the race before they got into town.
“This is unbelievable,” Bhangay said. “We feel lucky that we are witnessing this.”
“We are so proud of her,” Joshi said of Jacoby. “We will always remember this.”
After the race, a caravan of vehicles -- including a group shouting “USA” repeatedly from the bed of a pickup truck -- moved down Fourth Avenue as a lone runner ahead, clad in flag boxers and socks with “LYDIA” scrawled across his chest, waved an American flag. People cheered and took video along the street.
As the railroad terminal cleared, Willet was out of breath.
“That was amazing. That was amazing, to see someone that you know and love do that,” she said. “Yeah, Seward’s going to have a magic water pool from now on.”
She said she was headed home with her husband to call everyone she knows in the Lower 48.
And she planned to tell them: “Turn on the television and watch it.”