Seward’s Lydia Jacoby wins gold in Tokyo Olympics

Young caucasian woman smiles for a portrait outside
Seward swimmer Lydia Jacoby after returning home from the 2021 Olympic trials on June 23, 2021. (Valerie Kern/Alaska Public Media)

Seward’s Lydia Jacoby became an Olympic champion Monday night in Japan.

The 17-year-old swimmer placed first in the 100-meter breaststroke, beating out world- and Olympic-record holders and earning the state its very first Olympic swimming medal.

Jacoby nailed a time of 1 minute and 4.95 seconds in the race — her fastest time ever.

And in Seward, almost everyone at a local watch party was crying, including Sarah Spanos.

“You got gold,” she cheered. “Oh my gosh, gold!”

Spanos has been watching Jacoby swim since she was a kid. Her son, Connor, swam with Jacoby on the Seward Tsunami Swim Club.

“She always rises up to the top of every competition she gets to,” Connor Spanos said Monday night. “And it was no different at the Olympics, clearly.”

Jacoby’s friend, Wren Dougherty, agreed.

“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.”

RELATED: Seward swimming in hometown pride for its Olympic champ

Dougherty and the Spanoses were among the hundreds glued to the projector screen in a railroad terminal in Seward as Jacoby’s race started.

A group of people stand in a big room watching a screen with a swimmer's image projected on it.
In Seward, several hundred people gathered at the railroad terminal to cheer for Lydia Jacoby, who grew up swimming with the Seward Tsunami Swim Club. (Sabine Poux / KDLL)

The swimmer was in third place for the first half of the race, trailing Olympic-record holder Tatjana Schoenmaker of South Africa and Lilly King, also of Team USA, who won the event in the last Olympics.

RELATED: Doing it for Alaska: State’s first Olympic swimmer wins gold

Then, in the final 25 meters, Jacoby pulled ahead, beating out Schoenmaker by less than half a second.

Swim fans are considering it an upset and Jacoby herself looked stunned when she poked her head out of the pool.

A group of people paint a sign that says: Go Lydia! Go!
Seward residents make signs for Lydia Jacoby on Monday. (Sabine Poux / KDLL)

But Meghan O’Leary, who coached Jacoby in Seward, said the teenage swimmer had her eyes on the gold from the start.

“She texted me before her race and she said, ‘I want it.’ And I said, ‘Then you got it,'” said O’Leary.

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Interviewed by NBC’s Michele Tafoya immediately after the race, Jacoby was asked how she pulled off the gold medal.

“I don’t know,” she said, laughing, “I just tried to stretch myself out yesterday, so just trying to feel good and feel happy going into it.”

Tafoya showed Jacoby a video of fans reacting to her win in Seward and asked what message she had for them.

Jacoby’s a rising senior at Seward High School and is committed to swim at the University of Texas at Austin when she graduates. She was the first Alaska swimmer to represent the U.S. at the Olympics.

And O’Leary, the coach, said to the rows of Seward kids watching Jacoby swim on the big screen Monday, she was also a role model. 

“She’s still part of the team, you know? Even here, in our small little community. She’s racing on a world stage and she just won a gold medal and it’s amazing,” said O’Leary.

Jacoby could also swim in an Olympic relay later this week, although teams for that race won’t be announced until the day of the competitions.

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