Swimming World’s Female Newcomer of the Year: Lydia Jacoby

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Lydia Jacoby (USA), Tatjana Schoenmaker (RSA) and Lilly King (USA) react after finishing first, second and third in the women's 100m breaststroke final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Lydia Jacoby, left, with Lilly King Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Swimming World’s Female Newcomer of the Year: Lydia Jacoby

One way or the other, so goes the lore, Lydia Jacoby was going to be at the Tokyo Olympics.

Had the Games gone off as pre-pandemic planned in 2020, the native of Seward, Alaska, and her family would’ve taken the short sub-Arctic hop to Japan as spectators, something to fuel the rising high school junior’s swimming imaginations.

The delay by a year, though, offered Jacoby a very different Olympic adventure.

Jacoby’s gold medal in the women’s 100 breaststroke was one of the shocks of the Olympics in one of the most memorable races in the pool. It meant more history for a young phenom who’d been making it all summer.

Jacoby’s arrival on the national scene came at the TYR Pro Swim Series in March. She didn’t come completely out of nowhere, already a distinguished scholastic swimmer and a University of Texas commit. She was a dark horse contender to make a final at Olympic Trials in a deep and veteran breaststroke field, having gone 1:08.12 at the end of summer 2019. But the swim in Mission Viejo in April, a personal-best 1:06.38, catapulted her into the upper echelon.

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Lydia Jacoby; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I feel like I’ve grown a lot both physically and mentally this year,” Jacoby said in May. “Last year, I think I would’ve done well but didn’t have any shot of actually making the team. And this year, I feel like I have just as good of a shot as any of the other top six women. I’m very excited to see what happens and I think even if I don’t make it, I’m in a really good place where I’m so young and won’t be losing anything.”

That swim, in retrospect, was the start of a hot streak, the likes of which can carry an under-the-radar swimmer to an unexpected Olympic berth. Rarely, though, does that tale get the addendum of an Olympic medal much less gold.

She sprung a surprise at Olympic Trials, where the consensus was that the field was swimming for one spot behind Lilly King in both events. Jacoby ended up as that swimmer, working the back half to nip into second, ahead of Annie Lazor.

Jacoby’s persistence meant that more intensive training translated into more impressive time drops. She got as much from a pre-Tokyo training camp in Hawaii as anyone.

The benefit showed in a classic Olympic final in the 100. With all eyes on what appeared to be a two-way duel between the reigning Olympic champ King and South Africa’s Olympic record holder from semis Tatjana Schoenmaker, Jacoby pounced. She turned 3rd at the wall but just kept gaining. With every stroke, she whittled fractions of a second out of the gap to the leading pair, charging down the stretch with the fervor with which she’d burst onto the national scene in the spring.

When the wash settled, Jacoby was the Olympic champ in 1:04.95.

“It was crazy,” Jacoby said. “I was definitely racing for a medal. I knew I had it in me but I wasn’t really expecting a gold medal. When I looked up at the scoreboard it was insane.”

Jacoby would add silver in the women’s medley relay and was part of the mixed medley relay squad that finished fifth, turning in a valiant breaststroke leg despite her goggles falling off when she dove in. (Goggles or no, the error was the coaching staff’s in having Jacoby, the only female breaststroker of the final, swim, a miscalculation they would later own up to.)

Jacoby’s ascendancy is just beginning. She’s gone on to perform well at the FINA World Cup in the fall, just after her final Alaska high school championships. Though a COVID close contact robbed her of a full slate of events at Short-Course Worlds in December, she is a big part of the future of American breaststroke.

If that past is any indication, that future is very bright.