Surprise! Ahmed Hafnaoui and Lydia Jacoby Brought Shock Value To the Games

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Lydia Jacoby (USA) celebrates after winning the women's 100m breaststroke final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Surprise! Ahmed Hafnaoui and Lydia Jacoby Brought Shock Value To the Games

From September’s Issue of Swimming World Magazine

It happens every Olympiad, a traditional development that is awaited. We just don’t know where it will come from. A distance event? From a stroke discipline? Male? Female? The beautiful part of the scenario is its guessing-game nature. Who will provide the surprise performance of the Olympic Games?

Tokyo supplied a pair.

Prior to the start of the Games, few experts – if any – had Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui and American Lydia Jacoby standing on the top step of the podium at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Yet, that is where they stood after their prime events, Hafnaoui the champion of the 400-meter freestyle and Jacoby the gold medalist in the 100 breaststroke.

When the final of the 400 freestyle was called to the starting blocks, little attention was paid to Hafnaoui. He had narrowly advanced to the championship race, occupying Lane Eight. But as the cliché goes, he had a lane and a chance, and the 18-year-old took advantage of his opportunity. Lurking in second place from the 150-meter mark through the last turn, Hafnaoui overhauled frontrunner Jack McLoughlin of Australia down the last lap and prevailed in 3:43.36, the Aussie earning silver in 3:43.52.

Hafnaoui became just the second Tunisian to capture Olympic gold in the sport, joining Ous Mellouli, who was the 2008 titlist in the 1500 freestyle and 2012 champion in the 10k open-water event. It was a startling triumph, but could be just the beginning of a superb international career.

“I cannot believe it,” Hafnaoui said. “It was a dream and it has come true. It was great, it was my best race. I was in tears (on the podium) because I saw the flag of my country and I heard the anthem in the background. It was great. I’m so proud. I dedicate it to all the Tunisian people.”

While Hafnaoui was an off-the-radar medalist, Jacoby headed into the 100 breaststroke as an upstart. Following a superb performance at the United States Olympic Trials, the 17-year-old was considered a medal contender, but not so much for gold. The heavy favorite for the top spot was defending champion and world-record holder Lilly King.

Ultimately, it was Jacoby who flourished in the most-pressurized moment of her career. Third at the midway point, behind South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker and King, Jacoby surged on the last lap, especially in the final 15 meters, and got to the wall in 1:04.95. Schoenmaker followed in 1:05.22, with King claiming bronze at 1:05.54.

A native of Seward, Alaska, Jacoby supplied her state with a rare Summer Games medal and provided proof that, regardless of history, much can be accomplished with a chance. Going into her senior year of high school, Jacoby has committed to the University of Texas and given the United States, along with King, a potent combination in the 100 breaststroke.

“I was definitely racing for a medal. I knew I had it in me,” Jacoby said. “I wasn’t really expecting a gold medal, so when I looked up and saw the scoreboard, it was insane. A lot of big-name swimmers come from big, powerhouse clubs. Coming from a small club, in a state with such a small population, really shows everyone that you can do it no matter where you’re from.”

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