TOKYO — On the first day of the Olympic year 2020, Lydia Jacoby was a 15-year-old student at Seward High School in Alaska, with plans to attend the Tokyo Olympics — as a fan.
“Most of you probably know that I’m a competitive swimmer,” she wrote in a . “And last spring I participated in my first season of track. I enjoy singing, photography, and cooking (mostly so I can eat).”
She was, at the time, the 18th fastest American woman in the 100-meter breaststroke too, and perhaps a future star in the pool. But for now? Qualifying for the 2020 Olympics was an afterthought. So, her parents thought, they could take a family vacation there instead.
Eighteen months later, . She beat the reigning champ, Lilly King, and bucked even her own expectations. She looked up at the scoreboard, and saw a “1” next to her name, and “it was insane,” she said.
Especially because, if not for a novel virus that upended the world, Jacoby never would’ve swam here in Tokyo. Would she have qualified if not for the pandemic?
“No, I don’t [think so],” Jacoby said last month. “I don’t think I would have been prepared last year at all.”
The postponement of the Games gave her time. Jacoby, though, had to seek out opportunity. There are no 50-meter, Olympic-length pools in Alaska, and in those first lonely months of the pandemic, there were no open pools whatsoever in Seward, a port city of less than 3,000 people.
So, Jacoby and her mother picked up and moved, temporarily, two hours north to Anchorage. They lived out of a house owned by Lydia’s grandfather, who’d recently passed away, Jacoby said. Once they’d sold the house, they moved into an Airbnb. Swimming came to predominate Jacoby’s existence. Fellow swimmers became her best friends. She trained twice a day for the first time ever. “It became a bigger part of my life than it ever had been before,” she said of her sport.
Training in a 25-meter pool, she somehow lopped 2.84 seconds off her personal-best time in the 100 breast. She qualified at Olympic trials behind King, who hadn’t been beaten in the event in five-and-a-half years. Her phone blew up. “I actually had to turn it off for a while,” she said. “It was just kind of overwhelming.”
She went into Tuesday’s final here at the Tokyo Aquatics Center with medal hopes. “I knew I had it in me,” she said. But then she admitted: “I wasn’t really expecting a gold medal.”
But she chased down King and South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker, the newly-minted Olympic record-holder. She lifted herself up out of the pool, almost unsure what emotions to express. And ever so briefly, she looked up into the stands.
On Tuesday, in this world, they were mostly empty. Friends and family celebrated wildly back home in Seward.
Last year, in an alternate world, that’s where Jacoby would’ve been.
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