Sports

Back home in Seward, Olympic swim champion Lydia Jacoby attracts a lot of attention

Seward, Lydia Jacoby, Olympics, Olympian, swimmer, swimming, breaststroke

Two months ago, she was Lydia Jacoby, U.S. Olympic swim team member.

Three weeks ago, she was Lydia Jacoby, Olympic gold medalist.

These days, she is Lydia Jacoby, tourist attraction.

Jacoby is the 17-year-old from Seward who shook up the sports world on July 26 when she staged a thrilling finish to win the women’s 100-meter breaststroke at the Tokyo Olympics. A couple of days later, she picked up a silver medal in the women’s medley relay race.

She’s back home in Seward now, the place where she grew up, learned to swim and remains a member of the Tsunami Swim Club and Seward High swim team.

Jacoby is about the biggest thing to come out of Seward since the Iditarod Trail. It’s a fishing and tourist town of about 3,000 famous for Resurrection Bay, the Mount Marathon race, the Seward Silver Salmon Derby and the Seavey family of mushers.

It’s a small-pond town where a big fish like Jacoby -- whose image was seen nearly everywhere in the world during the Olympics -- is recognized by locals and tourists alike.

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“Being recognized everywhere I go is definitely strange for me,” Jacoby said this week. “It’s like literally everywhere I go -- restaurants, coffee shops, when I go out shopping. I was recognized in Homer a couple of days ago visiting one of my friends out on the Homer Spit. It’s pretty much everywhere.

‘“... Some people kind of ask me if it’s me, some people pretend like they’re not looking at me, some people try to take pictures of me without me knowing, and sometimes they ask.

“I’m generally a pretty private person, so just to have that going on is definitely strange. But I know everybody is super-excited.”

[A golden homecoming: Seward cheers Lydia Jacoby’s return from Olympic Games]

The fame even extends to Jacoby lookalikes.

“One of my friends also has really long, red hair and a kind of tall, athletic body shape. She told me a couple of people have asked if she is me,” Jacoby said.

Seward, Lydia Jacoby, Olympics, Olympian, swimmer, swimming, breaststroke

The real Lydia Jacoby attended a high school swim practice earlier this week, where presumably everyone knows her well enough to not take stealth selfies.

She said she stretched out but didn’t get in the pool. She hasn’t been in a pool since she left Tokyo, she said, and probably won’t get in one for awhile. “I’m taking a bit of a break,” she said.

Instead she’s picking fall-semester classes for her senior year of high school. In a year from now, she’ll be at the University of Texas, where she plans to swim for the Longhorns and, according to an Instagram story earlier this month, study fashion.

Jacoby said she hopes to swim for the Seward Seahawks during the upcoming high school season but isn’t sure how many meets she’ll be in. Much will depend on what opportunities come up with the U.S. national team, she said.

“I’ve always enjoyed high school swimming. I think it’s really fun,” she said. “I have some big goals this year. I’m trying to figure out my schedule but I’m hoping to do high school swimming for fun, and hopefully nail down some team records and maybe some state records.”

There’s also a national record to chase. The national high school record in the 100-yard breaststroke is 58.35, set in 2020 by Kaitlyn Dobler of Beaverton, Oregon. (Dobler swims for USC now and in June competed against Jacoby at the U.S Olympic Trials, where Jacoby placed second to earn a trip to Japan and Dobler placed fifth.)

Jacoby set the Alaska high school record of 1:00.61 two years ago as a 15-year-old sophomore. Her personal-best at 100 meters -- the 1:04.95 that carried her to Olympic gold -- converts to a 100-yard time of 56.71.

The gold medal set off a mind-bending experience for Jacoby.

“I honestly don’t remember much from the day of my 100 breast. It was kind of a whirlwind where I went where people wanted me to go,” she said.

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

First she faced a throng of media members in what’s known as the mixed zone, where athletes are guided through a sea of reporters from all over the world (and where she was asked, “How do you feel?” over and over).

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Four or five hours passed before she got a chance to call her parents, Rich and Leslie Jacoby, who were in Florida for a watch party put on by NBC and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee,

“The day (of) my race I didn’t really have time to process anything,” Jacoby said. “I went straight into six hours of media and doping control and live shows. I didn’t have any time to think, and to some degree it’s stayed like that.

“It’s been nice to see my friends.”

The world’s media described Jacoby’s victory as shocking, a fair assessment given she was swimming against teammate Lilly King, the world record-holder and 2016 Olympic champion, and South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker, the Olympic record-holder.

Yet Jacoby was a genuine medal threat all along. At the Olympic Trials in mid-June, she placed second to King in the finals with a time that ranked as the season’s second-fastest in the world at the time.

In her preliminary race at the Tokyo Aquatic Center, she finished in 1:05.72 to place second behind Schoenmaker’s Olympic-record swim of 1:04.82.

In the semifinals, she won her heat in 1:05.72 while King and Schoenmaker battled against each other in the other semifinal. Schoenmaker won in 1:05.07, King was next in 1:05.40.

“There was kind of a moment after the semifinals where I was like, ‘I want a medal and I think I have as good a shot as anyone of winning a gold medal,’ ‘’ Jacoby said. “It wasn’t something I shared with a lot of people.”

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In the finals, Jacoby swam in lane 3, Schoenmaker was in lane 4 and King was in lane 5.

“I was really happy with that lane assignment. On the turn I would be able to see Tatjana and Lilly and they wouldn’t be able to see me,” Jacoby said. “I knew I would have a slight advantage there, knowing where people were.

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

“I made the turn and I could see that they were right next to me, I could see them turning just a little ahead of me. Which felt really good to me. I’m not really a front-half swimmer, I like to hang out on their shoulders, and I know I can catch them on the turn.”

In her preliminary swim against Schoenmaker, Jacoby saw the South African make the turn with a decent lead.

“I knew I would have to work really hard to catch up, and I couldn’t do it,” she said. “In the finals I was so much closer on the wall.”

oly-swm-jacoby
Lilly King, Tatjana Schoenmaker, Lydia Jacoby

And then she powered into the lead to beat Schoenmaker by .27 of a second and King by .59 of a second. She claimed the gold medal and became an overnight sensation.

Before the race, Jacoby had 7,085 Instagram followers. Less than 24 hours later, she had more than 44,000. That number has since climbed to 73,000, and her posts draw comments from followers ranging from Katie Ledecky to Portugal. The Man.

She’s the pride of Seward, and if you happen to see her there, you probably won’t be the only one taking her picture.



Beth Bragg

Beth Bragg wrote about sports and other topics for the ADN for more than 35 years, much of it as sports editor. She retired in October 2021. She's contributing coverage of Alaskans involved in the 2022 Winter Olympics.

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