TOKYO — On the first day of the Olympic year 2020, Lydia Jacoby was a 15-year-old student at Seward High School in Alaska, with plans to attend the Tokyo Olympics — as a fan.
“Most of you probably know that I'm a competitive swimmer,” she wrote in a student newspaper staff bio. “And last spring I participated in my first season of track. I enjoy singing, photography, and cooking (mostly so I can eat).”
She was, at the time, the 18th fastest American woman in the 100-meter breaststroke, and perhaps a future star in the pool. But for now? Qualifying for the 2020 Olympics was an afterthought. So, her parents thought, they could take a family vacation there instead.
Eighteen months later, Jacoby stunned the world and won gold in Tokyo. She beat the reigning champ, Lilly King, and bucked even her own expectations. She looked up at the scoreboard, and saw a “1” next to her name, and “it was insane,” she said.
Especially because, if not for a novel virus that upended the world, Jacoby never would’ve swam here in Tokyo.
"I was going to swim at trials, but a year ago I didn't have a real shot of making the team," she said. "So yeah, we had tickets to Tokyo, we were gonna come watch."
The postponement of the Games gave her and nine other teens who ultimately made the U.S. women's Olympic swimming team an extra year to grow and improve. Jacoby, though, had to seek out opportunity throughout that year. There are no 50-meter, Olympic-length pools in Alaska, and in those first lonely months of the pandemic, there were no open pools whatsoever in Seward, a port city of less than 3,000 people.
Jacoby spent two months out of the water. Then she and her mother picked up and moved, temporarily, two hours north to Anchorage. They've been back and forth ever since. They lived out of a house owned by Lydia’s grandfather, who’d recently passed away, Jacoby has said. Once they’d sold the house, they moved into an Airbnb.
Swimming came to predominate Jacoby’s existence in those months. Fellow swimmers became her best friends. She trained twice a day for the first time ever. “It became a bigger part of my life than it ever had been before,” she said of her sport.
Training in a 25-meter pool, she lopped 2.84 seconds off her personal-best time in the 100 breast. She qualified at Olympic trials behind King, who hadn’t been beaten in the event in five-and-a-half years. Her phone blew up. “I actually had to turn it off for a while,” she said. “It was just kind of overwhelming.”
She went into Tuesday’s final here at the Tokyo Aquatics Center with medal hopes. “I knew I had it in me,” she said. But then she admitted: “I wasn't really expecting a gold medal.”
But she chased down King and South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker, the newly-minted Olympic record-holder. She broke the 1:05 barrier for the first time. She lifted herself up out of the pool, almost unsure what emotions to express. And for a brief moment, her orange-brown hair dripping down her back, she looked up into the stands.
On Tuesday, they were mostly empty.
Last year, Jacoby might have been in them.
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