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TOKYO — In an unsettling succession of races, U.S. swimming was losing heartbreakers and leaking prestige. Down went Katie Ledecky on Monday, then Ryan Murphy and Regan Smith on Tuesday—global stars who weren’t quite up to their world-record best when it mattered most. As the disappointments mounted, someone had to step up and stop the bleeding.
Naturally, that someone was a kid from the swimming backwater of Alaska, a 17-year-old who played the stand-up bass in a bluegrass band, and was so far off Olympic radar 18 months ago that she had tickets to attend the 2020 Tokyo Games as a fan.
Leave the rescue mission to Lydia Jacoby, who has rocketed from obscurity in March to curiosity in April to Olympian in June to gold medalist in July. Leave it to the other redheaded breaststroker to rally the red, white and blue. Leave it to the Olympics to produce a story this delightfully unexpected.
Straight outta Seward, population 2,773, where the watch party celebration was great beyond words. Straight onto the top step of the medal podium in the 100-meter breaststroke, where teammate and fellow ginger Lilly King was supposed to be standing. You cannot get here from there, but somehow Jacoby did when the U.S. needed it.
“The team area just erupted,” says U.S. butterflyer Gunnar Bentz. “A 17-year-old upsets the great Lilly King, wins a gold medal, from Alaska—she probably swims in iced-over lakes up there; who knows what she’s doing."
Jacoby knew what she was doing but still stunned herself.
“I was definitely racing for a medal,” she says. “I knew that I had it in me. I wasn’t really expecting a gold medal.”
Breaststroke, more than any other stroke, is prone to sudden alchemy. The most eccentric of the four swimming disciplines, both in terms of mechanics and mindset, prodigies can pop up from the strangest places at the most unexpected times. It has long been said that this stroke picks the swimmer more than the swimmer picks that particular stroke. “Pure breaststrokers,” says U.S. Olympic women’s coach Greg Meehan, “are built a little different.”
They can even be built in Alaska, a state that had never produced an Olympic swimmer before, much less a gold medalist. The weather doesn’t exactly cooperate with outdoor training, and there is little tradition and less indoor infrastructure. The state has just one 50-meter pool, and for much of the past year Jacoby shuttled between 25-yard pools in her hometown of Seward and two and a half hours away in Anchorage. Sled dogs and snowshoers, yes. Swimmers, no.
But somewhere along the way, the Alaskan outlier stopped being a cute little story and started to become the Alaskan assassin. Breathtaking improvement happened: Jacoby went from a lifetime best of 1:08.12 in 2019, No. 67 in the world, to the 1:04.95 she blazed here Tuesday to shock bronze medalist King and silver medalist Tatjana Schoenmaker of South Africa. That is time-lapse photography development.
As recently as April, Jacoby still had not broken 1:07. She did that at a meet in Mission Viejo, Calif., and it was the first time many people in the sport had ever heard of her. She certainly wasn’t on King’s radar as a potential challenger. “I’m in a fortunate situation,” King said in a Team USA virtual media summit in April. “I don’t have too many young kids coming for me. Maybe one—one little Italian girl.”
And maybe one Alaskan girl, it would turn out. Going to the Olympic trials, Jacoby was a contender, but gravity figured to exert itself upon an untested youngster in a cauldron of pressure.
That never happened. Instead, Jacoby broke 1:06 for the first time in the semifinals and took it down even lower in the final, upsetting King’s Indiana Swim Club teammate Annie Lazor to make the Olympic team.
Once again, the presumption was that the magnitude of the competition would eventually catch up with her. Once again, that presumption was wrong. With enhanced coaching from Team USA assistant Teri McKeever (the head women’s coach at California) and a full immersion in long-course training, no swimmer got more out of the four-week U.S. training camp leading into the Games than Jacoby. “The extra burst of having all of Team USA with me has been inspiring,” she says.
Coached up and urged on, Jacoby was strong in both the preliminaries and semifinals here, securing the No. 3 seed for finals. Still, all eyes were on King. She was not only the reigning gold medalist and world-record holder, she had been literally unbeatable in this event since 2015. Nobody was better in the big spot. “The greater the stakes, the more the pressure, the happier she is,” says King’s coach, Ray Looze.
But Jacoby, the daughter of boat captains who take tourists on whale watching tours, has her own impervious nature (perhaps oblivious is more accurate). Stage fright doesn’t seem to exist for her. She was accustomed to performing after spending years playing bass in the Snow River String Band with friends, touring bluegrass festivals in Alaska.
King, in fact, said she sees a lot of herself in Jacoby, who attended a camp at Indiana and met the queen of breaststroke a few years ago. “I told her I’d help her as much as I could,” King says. “Unfortunately, I think I helped too much.”
For King, a bronze medal was more surprising than the ones that went to Ryan Murphy in the men’s 100-meter backstroke and Regan Smith in the women’s just a few minutes earlier. Both Murphy and Smith were in widely acknowledged dogfights against competition capable of breaking world records. Their third places, in a vacuum, were not shocking or overly disappointing.
Cumulatively, however, those bronze medals and Ledecky’s silver in the 400-meter freestyle began to carry the weight of underachievement. That’s not completely fair, but U.S. swimming has raised the bar so high that it has put itself in the Olympic No Excuse Zone normally reserved for men’s basketball. Anything less than total domination—while unrealistic in an increasingly competitive global setting—leaves casual fans grumbling.
And so the grumbling was running high online when King and Jacoby stepped to the starting blocks Tuesday morning.
After a fast start, King was caught by Schoenmaker before the turn. It became increasingly obvious with each stroke on the back half that King couldn’t come back, laboring her way to a time that was 1.3 seconds off her world record. “I’m surprisingly O.K. right now,” King said shortly after the race, a feeling that likely didn’t last very long. “I’m very happy with my race and so excited for Lydia.”
Indeed, shortly after the finish King swam across two lanes to congratulate her protégé, holding her arm aloft. Jacoby, for her part, was in slack-jawed shock at what had transpired.
But Olympic women’s breaststroke—especially the sprint version—is nothing if not routinely unpredictable. King’s stunning upset means that the streak continues of never having a repeat champion in the 100. Meanwhile, the streak of teenage winners extends to three.
In 2012, 15-year-old Lithuanian Rūta Meilutytė stormed through the heats to gold. Four years later, it was 19-year-old King taking over. Now it’s 17-year-old Jacoby, coming from far off the customary age-group hotbed radar.
This happens, though. One of two 2016 U.S. Olympians in the 100-meter breaststroke (Katie Meili) swam at Columbia University, and the woman who finished third in the 200-meter breaststroke at the Olympic trials last month (Emily Escobedo) swam collegiately at University of Maryland Baltimore County. They’re both complete nonentities in competitive swimming.
Jacoby exudes a bit of born-not-made talent. That’s not to discount the work she’s put in, because no swimmer reaches the top without incredible investment. And significant improvements can be made through coaching and practice. But it’s easier to build a great freestyler, backstroker or butterflyer through elite training than to build one in the stroke that is most dependent upon rhythm and timing and varying forms of flexibility.
You either have a breaststroke gift, or you do not. Alaskan assassin Lydia Jacoby has it, and rather shockingly delivered it when U.S. swimming needed a boost.
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