Lydia Jacoby won gold at 17, then learned the brutal, complicated pitfalls of Olympic stardom

INDIANAPOLIS — Lydia Jacoby knows that to most of the world, she will probably always be the 17-year-old who shocked the Olympics. She was, at the time, just a kid from tiny Seward, Alaska, a bass-playing, bluegrass-singing, soon-to-be-valedictorian of her 29-person public high school class. But in 2021, first in Nebraska and then in Tokyo, she became something more. She beat an unbeatable champ. She clung to the wall of a pool, instantly immortal and agape. Perhaps you remember her innocent, disbelieving face.

Or perhaps you remember the maniacal celebrations in Seward, population 2,851, after Jacoby won Olympic gold in the 100-meter breaststroke.

What you probably didn’t see was the parade, and the visit from Alaska’s governor, and the hero’s welcome when Lydia returned home.

What you also probably didn’t see, though, were the challenges that sometimes accompany viral Olympic stardom.

They tugged and gnawed at Jacoby constantly over the past three years.

They contributed to what she calls “post-Olympic depression.” They nearly drove her out of swimming altogether. They, or at least their remnants, followed her to Indianapolis for the 2024 Olympic trials.

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 27: Lydia Jacoby of United States
Lydia Jacoby reacts after winning gold in the 100m breaststroke during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Giorgio Scala/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

They were mostly invisible. So, what you saw here Monday was a 20-year-old would-be phenom fail to make an Olympic team. You saw a defending gold medalist, the one on promotional banners and in commercials, finish third and stalk off a pool deck, out of sight.

What you didn’t see was her everyday battle to prove to herself that none of this — neither the gold medal nor Monday’s devastation, nor any times or accomplishments in between — should define her.

“I am more than an athlete,” Jacoby wrote in an Instagram post confirming that her bid for the 2024 Olympics was over.

She had certainly planned to be in Paris, and worked toward a second Games daily for several months, but “being a swimmer is something I do,” she said in something of an exit interview here on Tuesday, “it's not something I am.”

Jacoby knew nothing about mental health or fame as the Olympics first approached in 2020. Heck, she had never even swum in a 50-meter pool. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she was planning to travel to Tokyo as a fan, but the postponement allowed her enough time to actually qualify.

In retrospect, she said this spring, at 17, “I was pretty ignorant about a lot of things.”

Then, suddenly, she became a celebrity. Everyone in Seward had her picture plastered to their window or home.

The reception, and the adulation, were “such a high,” Jacoby says. She savored it. But she also felt pulled in a dozen different directions, by sponsors and others, all while trying to mature and grow like a “normal” teen.

Her first mistake, it seems, was following her excitement back into the water after only a week off from swimming post-Tokyo. By the fall of 2021, she felt burnt out.

“I wasn't enjoying practice because I just had nothing to motivate me,” Jacoby said. “I was like, ‘I've already done this. What's next?’”

She also wasn’t happy, and, well, huh? “I've just won all these medals, I've done all these things that I've been working towards my whole life,” Jacoby thought. “I couldn't understand why.”

There were days she struggled to get out of bed. So she searched for a source, “for something to pinpoint as the root of my unhappiness,” for “anything to blame for that,” she said.

She landed on a frightening thought: “It must be swimming. I bet swimming's making me miserable.” She came to “resent” the sport.

The following summer, at trials for 2022 worlds, she failed to make the U.S. team in any of her three events, and that’s when she realized that outside pressures were infecting her. Expectations deepened her disappointment — in part because she felt like her “identity was locked up in sports.”

“That,” Jacoby said, “was a moment when I was like, ‘OK, I have some things that I need to sort out.’” She accepted that she was “dealing with mental health challenges.” She worked with therapists to sort through her feelings, and learned to better care for herself.

She also worked, over the two years that followed, to reframe her relationship with swimming. After missing worlds, she went to a meet in Europe, mostly just to enjoy it. Then she took a summer off from swimming. At times, she considered quitting the sport. But she followed through on her commitment to the University of Texas, and found a community that made it more fun.

By the spring of 2024, she seemed to be in a better place. “I've kind of taken some time away, and realized that there's so much more to success than just medals,” she said in April at a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media summit designed to promote the 2024 Games. She spoke about redefining goals and rediscovering passion.

None of that has been a linear process. No mental health journey is. There were still mornings, Jacoby said, when she’d think: “Oh my god, I'd rather do anything else than get in the pool right now.”

And more generally, she said here at trials, "It's been a pretty rough year, honestly.” She’s been “grappling with some different things.”

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JUNE 17: (R-L) Lilly King and Lydia Jacoby of the United States react after the Women's 100m breaststroke final on Day Three of the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium on June 17, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Lydia Jacoby congratulates Lilly King after the 100m breaststroke on Day 3 of the 2024 U.S. Olympic trials. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

She arrived nonetheless as a favorite to qualify in the 100 breaststroke.

She knew, though, as she said in April, that “there's always those random kids from random places” who come out of nowhere to steal Olympic spots.

One, Emma Weber, out-touched Jacoby on Monday by 0.27 seconds, and looked up at a gargantuan scoreboard, and said to herself: “I don’t think that’s right.” But it was.

So it was Weber who became an unlikely, endearing Olympian. Jacoby hugged Weber and the woman she’d dethroned in 2021, Lilly King; then descended into the background, and “had a little cry.”

Jacoby was frustrated, because “that time was over a second slower than I swam last trials,” she said. “I don't feel like I put up a swim that's a good representation of what I can do.”

The following day, though, when she arrived at Lucas Oil Stadium to speak with reporters, sporting jeans and blue sneakers, she said: “I feel weirdly fine.”

She will, of course, need time to process what happened here on this singular stage, in a brutal sport that will build you up and then, in tenths of a second, tear you down.

“It hasn't quite hit me yet,” Jacoby, now 20, said. It surely will, at some point, perhaps all at once in a few days, perhaps gradually throughout a summer that will now require rejiggered plans.

The experiences of the past three years, though, have clearly primed her for this next stage of the journey. Years ago, swimming “was really what drove my moods,” she said. Now, within 24 hours of Monday’s heartbreak, she is able to remind herself: “I have so many interests and passions, I have amazing friends, amazing family, outside of the sport.”

All of those friends and family celebrated her in 2021. And “all of those same people” sent her loving messages Monday and Tuesday, she said. That, she seems to realize, is more significant than any piece of metal. “They truly are my main supporters,” she added, “and I'm so grateful to have them.”