Seward’s Lydia Jacoby became an Olympic champion this week in Japan. The 17-year-old swimmer placed first in the 100-meter breaststroke, beating record holders and earning the state its very first Olympic swimming medal.
Back home, it felt like the whole town of Seward was watching.
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Under a huge American flag in a railroad terminal on Port Avenue, between the harbor and cruise ship dock, hundreds of Sewardites watched one of their own get closer and closer and closer to becoming the world’s best.
And with each passing second, the crowd got closer and closer to losing their minds. Then Jacoby tapped the wall first.
The shouting soon turned to crying and hugging. At the front of the crowd, Wren Dougherty, who has known 17-year-old Jacoby since they were infants, was watching through tears.
“I’m so excited, holy cow,” she said. “I just am so proud of her and I love her so much.”
Sarah Spanos has been watching Jacoby swim with her sons for years. She thought Jacoby had a good shot at a medal but never dreamed she’d win gold.
“Lydia, you’re the best, we love you,” she said. “The whole town will be waiting with open arms for you to come. You got gold, oh my gosh. GOLD!”
Spanos helped organize the watch party, where the community that’s known Jacoby all her life witnessed her become an Olympic champion.
Jacoby’s race is the 100-meter breaststroke, a quick event that sends swimmers to the other side of the pool and back in barely more than a minute.
For the first half of the race, Jacoby was in third place, trailing Olympic record-holder Tatjana Schoenmaker, of South Africa, and Lilly King, also of Team USA, who won the event in the last Olympics.
King and Schoenmaker were favorites, with faster times and years more experience.
But Jacoby pulled ahead in the last quarter of the race.
She hit the wall first, after a minute and 4.95 seconds, and looked stunned as she poked her head up and saw the scoreboard. The crowd in Seward shouted and jumped so hard the room seemed to shake.
“Her whole family, her, they’re just the perfect examples for USA,” said Hunter Hollingsworth, who grew up swimming with Jacoby. “Super nice, just — I wouldn’t want anyone else representing USA.”
“She always rises up to the top of every competition she gets to,” said Connor Spanos, another Seward teammate. “And it was no different at the Olympics, clearly.”
Meghan O’Leary, who coached Jacoby in Seward, said she had her eyes on the gold before she jumped in the pool.
“She texted me before her race and she said, ‘I want it,'” she said. “And I was like, ‘Then you got it.’”
There are a lot of elements that make Jacoby’s race remarkable — her last-second lead and her young age. Jacoby is entering her senior year at Seward High School and is committed to swim at the University of Texas at Austin when she graduates in 2022.
But there was one detail race announcers, and the internet, just could not get over:
“Not exactly your hotbed of swimming,” said one NBC announcer after the race. “Alaska.”
That may be so. Alaska’s never sent a swimmer to the Olympics before.
Jacoby became the athlete she is today with the Seward Tsunami Swim Club, which she joined when she was 6 years old.
Dana Paperman, of Seward, remembered Jacoby at a swim meet called the Candy Cane Splash.
“Her first 50-meter race,” she said. “She looks confident, looks strong. She hits the black line into the deep end. She comes up coughing, spitting water and crying. And her dad automatically just got on a chair, reached (into) the pool, picked her up, and she just grabbed onto him and she might’ve even said, ‘I’m never swimming again!’”
Coaches say it’s Jacoby’s kick that separates her breaststroke from the pack. She honed that breaststroke with her coaches in Seward, and then in Anchorage when the pandemic hit and Seward’s pool closed.
That’s where she got to train in the state’s only Olympic-sized pool, at Anchorage’s Bartlett High School.
On Monday night, the Seward swim club was front and center to watch the race. Dougherty said she gets so nervous watching her friend compete that it feels like she’s about to jump in the pool herself.
“It’s so crazy and exciting because she’s worked so hard for so long,” she said. “She’s a really humble person, so she really deserves all this recognition.”
Seward had its pride for Jacoby on display in the months before the race, from signs in store windows and along the highway, to red, white and blue “Go, Lydia! Go!” t-shirts.
“It’s really exciting to see everywhere you go — every restaurant, every last business has support up for her,” said Matt Arnold, one of Seward’s many seasonal employees. He’s in town from Florida to work on a barge outside the terminal where the watch party was gathered.
“It was just electric to be here and see her win it,” he said.
Now, all of Alaska is celebrating Jacoby. She’s only the 10th Summer Olympian to be born in Alaska.
For the rows of Seward kids watching Jacoby swim on the big screen Monday, O’Leary said she’s more than that. She’s a role model.
“She’s still part of the team, you know? Even here, in our small little community,” she said. “She’s racing on a world stage and she just won a gold medal and it’s amazing.”
Jacoby could swim in two Olympic relays, although teams won’t be announced until later this week.
When she gets back from Tokyo, Seward’s Olympian will be greeted by a community practiced up on gold medal-worthy levels of support.