Gold medalist Lydia Jacoby shares stories and laps with young Sitka swimmers

A girl in a pink swim cap looks across a lane standing in  a pool
Jacoby is a senior at Seward High School who will attend the University of Texas next fall. She told the Barracudas that she wasn’t disheartened by the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics by a year (from 2020 to 2021), as the extra time was put to good use in more training. And, as she told the Sitka kids, “I’m only 17” — meaning, she’s got a few more Olympic Games ahead of her. (Katherine Rose/KCAW)

Olympic gold medalist Lydia Jacoby shared stories of her rise to the top with some of Sitka’s youngest swimmers in a one-hour pool session on Friday, Jan. 28.

And when that was done, they dived in to practice with — and race against — one of the fastest women in the water.

On the pool deck, Jacoby towered over the 30-odd Baranof Barracudas swimmers schooling around her. On the starting block, she was every inch the larger-than-life Olympian who captured gold in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke last summer.

Jacoby is a 17-year old high school senior from Seward and the first Alaskan swimmer ever to qualify for the Olympics. She gave a short talk to introduce herself to the kids and parents — and to let them pass around her gold and silver medals from the Tokyo Olympics. Then she warmed up in the water with the young swimmers, chatting as she moved from lane to lane.

A woman and two small children posing with an Olympic gold medal
Emily Routon and kids look at Lydia Jacoby’s gold medal from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — the first-ever won by an Alaskan swimmer. (Photo by Katherine Rose/KCAW)

But everyone felt they knew her already.

In the bleachers, Edith Johnson watched while her daughter Addison swam laps with Jacoby. She said the family watched Jacoby’s gold medal swim over and over. And even though the two girls are just a few years apart, Johnson said the visit felt like a hero moment for Addie.

“She’s been counting her sleeps,” she said. “She’s been so excited to see Lydia. She made her card. Every day she has been talking about it. So yeah, this totally made made her school year.”

At the starting blocks, Knox and Jacoby organized the swimmers into heats, youngest to oldest, to take on the fastest female breaststroker in the world.

Nine swimmers shot from the blocks, but Jacoby remained standing on hers. When the kids were nearly halfway down the pool, Jacoby dove in and broke the surface just in front of the pack, swam two or three strokes to touch the wall, then turned and waited for everyone to catch up.

Jacoby gives the same starting advantage to all the age groups, and the competition tightened up a bit with the teens.

James Nellis, 13, just managed to edge her out.

“It’s it’s crazy,” he said. “I don’t even know what to say.”

Nellis said Jacoby’s talk encouraged him to stick with swimming.

“When she said a lot of her friends were dropping out, and she wanted to quit — I’ve felt that before,” he said. “And I thought, ‘I’m gonna keep going now.’”

Lydia Jacoby standing poolside, talking to young swimmers
Olympian Lydia Jacoby is just a few years older than the kids in Sitka’s swim program, and she remembers the feeling when her friends left the pool to play more social team sports. “I think that’s definitely something that happens in a lot of the sports like running, swimming, skiing, you know, people don’t think of them as ‘cool,’ she says. “So it’s neat to kind of gotten to this level and realize how cool it really is and know what amazing people keep doing it.” (Photo by Katherine Rose/KCAW)

In her talk with the kids, Jacoby said that just as she was breaking into the record books in Alaska as a 12-year old, her friends began turning to other, more social sports.

Kevin Knox said it is something every swimmer struggles with because swimming is the most solitary of team sports.

“You know, when you’re trying to stay in and get better and better and better, you have to keep at it,” Knox said. “It’s not the same as, you know, a season of basketball or a season of baseball or something else like that. You have to stick with it because it’s tough.”

Jacoby said she’s needed someone to motivate her, too.

“I was really inspired by Jessica Hardy,” she said. “She was the world record holder in the 100 breaststroke before Lily King. She came to do a clinic with our team a few years ago, when I was 13, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. And she’s been super encouraging through the whole Olympic process for me, so she’s been awesome.”

Jacoby shared some Olympic stories with the kids — the early-morning hours, the intense training and how to take into competition whatever attitude helped you in practice. She said she was just glad to have made it to the Olympics.

There were also a few swimmers at the Mt. Edgecumbe Aquatic Center who were going to stick with it with or without inspiration from an Olympian.

Dean Orbison is an Alaska Masters silver medalist in the 100 fly in the 60-year-old age group. He had Jacoby sign the back of his t-shirt. Tom Jacobsen, a local dentist, holds the Alaska Masters gold for the 200 backstroke for 65-and-up.

“I am inspired,” he said. “Inspired at how much faster she is than I am.”

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Robert Woolsey is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.