Alaska’s first Olympic swimmer is also its first Olympic champion.
If the hints had been there, given Lydia Jacoby’s blossoming reputation and strong performances in the US trials and Olympic heats, few saw this coming. Judging from her gasp when she looked up at the giant video screen and realised she had won the 100m breaststroke in Tokyo, the teenager was pretty surprised as well.
It’s not just because Jacoby is a 17-year-old in her first international competition. That she’s a high-school student who trains in yards, not metres. Nor simply that she hails from the scenic obscurity of Seward, population 2,773, a two-and-a-half-hour drive south of Anchorage, the location of the only 50m pool in the state.
It’s also since this is – was – Lilly King’s event. We came expecting to respect consistency, not marvel at change. Tuesday’s outcome was King’s first loss in a 100m breaststroke final since December 2015, a long-course tally of 53 races. King, the outspoken 24-year-old from Indiana, is the world-record holder and won gold in Rio.
First place was anticipated to come down to a duel between King and the South African, Tatjana Schoenmaker– who had set an Olympic record in qualifying and beat King in their semi-final. And that looked to be the case as the race headed towards its climax. But Jacoby powered through in the closing metres to finish in 1:04.95, 0.27 seconds ahead of Schoenmaker. King took bronze.
When even the winner describes the result as “insane” it’s surely fair for the rest of us to gape, too. The year-long delay in the staging of these Games evidently worked in Jacoby’s favour, giving her more time to mature and improve. Among Americans in the past 20 years, only Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin have won individual Olympic titles for the US at a younger age.
“It was crazy. I was definitely racing for a medal, I knew I had it in me but I wasn’t really expecting a gold medal,” she said. “When I looked up at the scoreboard it was insane.”
King said she felt “surprisingly OK” with how it turned out. “I’m excited to see the future of American breaststroke and to have someone to go head-to-head with,” she added. “I definitely knew she was a threat. I saw a lot of myself in her and I knew something special would happen.”
Jacoby, who three-and-a-half years ago was performing barefoot on stage at the Anchorage Folk Festival, singing and strumming a double bass, plans to study fashion design at the University of Texas. She grew up surrounded by water: Seward is a port city and her parents are boat captains. Now it’s known for swimming as well as seafaring.
“It is huge,” she said of the win. “A lot of big-name swimmers come from big powerhouse clubs, but coming from a small club and a state with such a small population shows that you can do it no matter where you are from.”
The emergence of a fresh star in the last final of the day lifted what had threatened to be an underwhelming session for Team USA, who had six swimmers in four finals, none of them named Ledecky or Dressel.
Kieran Smith, a 21-year-old, 6ft5in, University of Florida student, took the bronze in the 400m freestyle on Sunday but could only manage sixth place in the 200m.
Then, in the women’s 100m backstroke final, Regan Smith, 19, who had set an Olympic record in qualifying a day earlier, finished third. Her compatriot, Rhyan White, was fourth.
Ryan Murphy, the 100m backstroke world record holder, stuffed his hands in his sweater pockets as he strolled into the arena for his final. Headphones on, slapping his chest, he pulled off a discordant look: somehow both nonchalant and pumped. But the 26-year-old, who won three golds in Rio, failed to defend his 100 title, placing third behind the Russians, Evgeny Rylov and Kliment Kolesnikov. The setback ended the Americans’ streak of six straight titles in the event daring back to Atlanta 1996.
Ledecky booked her place in the final of the 200m freestyle with the third-fastest time of the heats, half-a-second slower than the quickest qualifier. Who was, you guessed it: Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, who beat Ledecky to win gold in the 400m freestyle a day earlier. That sets up another intriguing clash between two of the most familiar names at these Games. But today was about the shock of the new.