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Opinion: Lydia Jacoby, 17, wins swimming gold in race she should have never made

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 7/27/2021 Christine Brennan, USA TODAY
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TOKYO — The first U.S. woman to win a gold medal in swimming at these Olympics was not Katie Ledecky or Lilly King, but a 17-year-old from Alaska born on Leap Day who almost certainly never would have made the Olympics if they had been held last year as originally scheduled.

Lydia Jacoby is just what these bizarre and austere Tokyo Olympics need: a breath of fresh air, a serendipitous swimmer who peaked at the exact right moment and a hero for the high school boys and girls in Seward, Alaska, who were captured in a delightful viral video leaping for joy the moment she touched the wall first in the women’s 100 breaststroke Tuesday morning at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

a close up of a sign: Lydia Jacoby (USA) on the podium with her gold medal during the medals ceremony for the women's 100m breaststroke during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. © Rob Schumacher, Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports Lydia Jacoby (USA) on the podium with her gold medal during the medals ceremony for the women's 100m breaststroke during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

Jacoby, who just kept improving since finishing second to King at the U.S. Olympic trials last month, won the gold in 1:04.95. South African Tatjana Schoenmaker took the silver in 1:05.22 and King, the world-record holder in the event, settled for the bronze in 1:05.54.

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For King, 24, the gold-medal favorite, whatever personal disappointment she felt melted away the moment she turned toward Jacoby, who was peering at the scoreboard in disbelief, mouth agape.

King quickly swam over to her teammate, wrapped her in a big hug, patted her swim cap a couple of times, raised Jacoby’s left hand as if she had just won a prizefight and emphatically slapped the water in Jacoby’s lane in celebration. 

“So excited for Lydia,” King said later. “I love to see the future coming up like this.”

Jacoby had high hopes for the race, just not this high.

“I was definitely racing for a medal,” she said. “I wasn’t really expecting a gold medal so when I looked up at the scoreboard it was insane.”


Video: US swimmer Lydia Jacoby talks about her upset gold medal in 100m breaststroke (TODAY)

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Later in their official press conference, to which the always-entertaining King brought her lunch, the two American medalists spoke of each other.

“Lilly has always been a huge role model for me,” Jacoby said, adding that in 2016 in Rio, “I was 12, I was little watching her swim.” 

“She makes me feel so old,” King said with a smile. “I’m not that old.”

They met at a swim camp at Indiana University, where King was a star. King did her best to recruit Jacoby to become a Hoosier but ultimately failed. The newly-minted gold medalist is going to Texas in the fall of 2022 after one more year of high school. 

“I just wanted to help her out as much as I could,” King said, looking at Jacoby sitting next to her at a long table in front of reporters. “Unfortunately I helped her out a little too much. No, I’m super super proud of her and she had the swim of her life today and that’s awesome and we should focus on that.”

The fact is, had there been no pandemic, there would have been no Jacoby in this race. King is at peace with it, and Jacoby readily acknowledges it. She is one of 11 teenagers on the U.S. swimming team, 10 of them women, the most since the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. They are the inevitable beneficiaries of the awful and strange year we all lived during the pandemic and resulting lockdown.

“A year ago I really didn’t have a real shot at making the team,” Jacoby said. But she and her parents were still planning to go to Japan as spectators.

“We had tickets to Tokyo,” she said. “We were going to come watch.”

As U.S. states go, Alaska is comparatively close to Japan. Then again, Alaska hardly is a hot-bed of swimming. It has only one 50-meter pool in the whole state. Jacoby is the first Olympic swimmer and only the 10th Summer Olympian to be born in Alaska. 

The only child of sightseeing boat captains, Jacoby grew up on the water in the harbor town of Seward. 

“My family is a boating family; we have a sailboat,” she said. “So my parents put me in to the swim club when I was six so I could learn to swim and to be more safe, living where I do and doing what our family does, and then it just kept going from there.”

She said those words little more than five weeks ago at the U.S. trials. She was right; it did indeed just keep going from there.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Lydia Jacoby, 17, wins swimming gold in race she should have never made

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