TOKYO — Swimming would seem a sport in which so much is quantifiable that everything should be predictable. Athletes are measured in their reaction time off the block, in their stroke rate, in how fast they turn, in how often they breathe. The scoreboard is there for all to see, not contained by borders or dates. Here are the fastest times, and so here are the Olympic favorites.
By almost any measure, Lilly King arrived as a can’t-miss lock in Tuesday morning’s final of the women’s 100-meter breaststroke at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. She won gold in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. She owns the world record. Of the five fastest swims in this event this year, she owned four of them. She is brash and established, a sure bet.
Maybe, though, such information doesn’t reach places such as Seward, Alaska, nearly 2½ hours south of Anchorage, population 2,773 — including an Olympic gold medalist.
“A lot of big-name swimmers come from big, powerhouse clubs,” said Lydia Jacoby, all of 17, “and I think that me coming from a small club, and a state with such a small population, really shows everyone that you can do it no matter where you’re from.”
Jacoby did it here, at the Tokyo Olympics, with a statement of a swim Tuesday morning. Over a thrilling final 50 meters, she tracked down not only King, her teammate, but South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker. When she touched the wall in 1 minute 4.95 seconds, she turned around to glance up at the scoreboard.
“It was crazy,” Jacoby said. “I was definitely racing for a medal. I knew that I had it in me. I wasn’t really expecting a gold medal.”
Yet that’s what she produced. Alaska had never produced an Olympic swimmer, let alone a gold medalist. In all of its 663,268 square miles, there is but one Olympic-size pool. That pool — at Anchorage’s Bartlett High, where Jacoby trained — is raising funds through a GoFundMe site to buy new starting blocks.
On top of that, before she arrived in Tokyo, Jacoby had never competed in a major international meet. She had more experience performing in front of crowds as a member of the Snow River String Band, for which she plays stand-up bass and sings.
So forgive the look of disbelief when she pulled her goggles from her eyes.
“When I looked up and saw the scoreboard, it was insane,” Jacoby said.
The United States now has three swimming golds and 12 medals in the pool overall, counting the bronze medals won early Tuesday by Regan Smith in the women’s 100 backstroke and Ryan Murphy in the men’s version of the same event, plus King two spots behind Jacoby. The golds match Australia’s total, and the Americans have five more medals total.
But the buzz came from Jacoby. Her senior year at Seward High is still to come. Her days swimming for the Seward Tsunami Swim Club aren’t far behind. She has committed to swim for the University of Texas, but that won’t come until the fall — of 2022.
Yet she is the new queen, beating King.
“I’m surprisingly okay right now,” King said. “I’m very happy with my race. So excited for Lydia. I love to see the future of American breaststroke coming up like this, and to have someone to go head-to-head with …”
Jacoby is no longer the future. She is the present. At American trials last month, she was second to King in 1:05.28. In the month since, she traveled to the U.S. training camp in Hawaii — and got better. Who knows how much a teenager can change when put in an entirely new environment and exposed to the best swimmers in the world?
“I think it helped a lot,” said Alex Walsh, a first-time Olympian from the University of Virginia who turns 20 later this week. “I think a bunch of us, this is our first or second major international meet, so having that kind of camp just to be able to get to know one another and also bond with the vets and hear what they have to say and learn a lot from them, I think that was really beneficial in getting us mentally prepared for taking on a stage as big as this one.”
Jacoby’s race capped what might have been a marquee day for the American team — but only served to show that there’s a reason to show up for the finals, regardless of what the times say about who should win. The Americans’ first gold of the morning figured to come in the men’s 100 back, because the Americans always win the backstroke races. In the 12 men’s Olympic finals in the discipline since 1992, U.S. men had produced 12 golds — including winning swims from legends such as Lenny Krayzelburg, Aaron Peirsol and Ryan Lochte.
Murphy — the double backstroke champion at the Rio de Janeiro Games five years ago — was set to carry on that tradition. He set the world record with his gold medal-winning swim in Rio, and he owns three of the five fastest times in history.
But a pair of Russians — Evgeny Rylov and Kliment Kolesnikov — had posted faster times than Murphy this year. Tuesday, they did just that again. Over the last 50 meters, the question wasn’t whether Murphy would back up his gold — and carry on the American tradition. It was whether he could cling to a medal. He did that — bronze — but he was 0.21 seconds behind Rylov’s gold medal effort, 0.19 behind Kolesnikov for silver.
Also on Tuesday morning, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus and Katie Ledecky of the United States — fresh off their epic 400-meter freestyle final Monday — set up another tussle in the 200 free. Titmus owns the fastest time in the event this year, and she set the standard for Wednesday’s final, posting the fastest time of the semifinals (1:54.82). Ledecky, swimming in the semifinal opposite Titmus, won her race but had the third-fastest time (1:55.34).
The surprise of the day, though, was Jacoby. Smith, herself just a teenager, didn’t meet Jacoby until the night at trials when Jacoby qualified for the team.
“She’s just a sweetheart,” Smith said.
On Monday night, she was Seward’s sweetheart. By Tuesday morning, she belonged to all of America.
When the race finished, King looked at the same numbers and immediately turned to her teammate — two lanes away. She swam over the lane line and gave Jacoby a hug. A gold medal, out of Alaska? A gold medal, out of nowhere? It’s the Olympics, so it’s all possible.
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The Tokyo Olympics have come to a close.