“Sometimes,” said Judy Odhner, one of the cafe’s co-owners, “it would get a little disruptive to the eating.”
There are moments at an Olympics that change a life. There are moments at an Olympics that redefine a town. And there are moments at an Olympics that make you say: “That’s why I watch. That’s why I came. That’s what it’s about.”
Lydia Jacoby, daughter of Seward, Alaska, provided just that Tuesday morning, the swim of her life, which means a lot, even if her life has lasted just more than 17 years. Lilly King is the queen of the 100-meter breaststroke, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist and the world record holder. And Jacoby — more accustomed to performing in front of audiences at bluegrass festivals around Alaska than as an athlete on international television — simply stalked her, caught her, passed her and beat her.
It was a very King-like thing to do. And Jacoby did it to King.
“Lilly’s always been a huge role model for me,” Jacoby said. “In Rio, I was 12.”
“She makes me feel so old,” King shot back. And she smiled.
It is not easy to wrest a title from an Olympic champion, and King was not happy with her swim, which still landed bronze. But she smiled at Jacoby, because how could you not? This story is as endearing as it is improbable, and it includes King trying — and failing — to recruit Jacoby to Indiana University, helping her at a swim camp years ago.
“Unfortunately,” King said, “I helped her out a little too much.”
The most unlikely aspect of the most unlikely result so far at the Tokyo Olympics swim meet? Well, go to Jacoby’s hometown. Seward boasts some 2,773 people, give or take. In the summer, it is a tourist hub, offering cruises to see whales, to see otters, to see the majesty of the adjacent Kenai Fjords National Park. Jacoby’s parents met while working on boats in the harbor here, and each has served as a captain. The only reason 6-year-old Lydia swam in the first place was because her family got a sailboat.
“They just wanted me to be safe in the water,” she said.
By 12, she broke her first state record. “That was kind of when I realized that it was something that I excelled at,” she said. But it wasn’t the only thing she excelled at. Kids in Seward often attend a summertime bluegrass camp, so Lydia took up the upright bass and the guitar. She sings. “There was a group of us that really enjoyed it,” Jacoby said. For five or six years, she and four friends formed the Snow River String Band, and a few minutes on YouTube reveal the talent that brought them to the Anchorage Bluegrass Festival and elsewhere.
At that point, she would have seemed more likely destined to become the next Jewel than the next … Lilly King? Alaska has 424.5 million acres and just one proper, 50-meter, Olympic-size pool. It had never produced a swimming Olympian. So when out-of-towners saw the “Go Lydia!” stickers at Zudy’s, they were disbelieving.
“People would come in and say, ‘Is she training in Resurrection Bay?’ ” said Odhner, the cafe owner, referring to the body of water on which Seward sits. “ ‘Surely, Seward doesn’t have a pool.’ Sometimes, we’d just go with that. ‘Oh, yeah, she trains with the sea lions and sea otters, and she’s just one tough girl.’ ”
Actually, that might be less preposterous than how Jacoby actually ended up with the gold medal. A year ago, at 16, she had qualified for the U.S. trials, but she was so confident she had no chance of making the team that she and her family had booked a 2020 summer vacation.
“We had tickets to Tokyo,” Jacoby said. “We were going to come watch.”
A fan one summer and a gold medalist the next? Either way, she would have to work a trip around her internship writing for the Seward Journal.
The coronavirus pandemic, of course, postponed the Games by a year and wiped out that family trip — and seemingly derailed any dreams of actually qualifying for the Olympics. With Alaska on lockdown, Jacoby didn’t swim for two months. When the pools in Anchorage, more than two hours north of Seward, opened up, she traveled there, renting an apartment and training for a time in an L-shaped pool — 25 yards one way, 25 meters the other. When the 25-yard pool in Seward reopened, she would spend a week at home and a week in Anchorage.
This wouldn’t seem a recipe for building a 17-year-old Olympian. Yet Jacoby was second to King at the U.S. trials to make the team, then entered the final with the third-fastest time. Regardless of the meet, regardless of the stage, that’s all a swimmer needs: a lane.
“I definitely let my nerves get the better of me going into my swim yesterday morning [in the semifinals], and that reflected in my race,” Jacoby said Tuesday. “I was just trying to channel that energy in a more positive way into this morning.”
Over the last 25 meters, Jacoby’s energy was in one direction: forward. When swimmers touch the wall, they have no way of knowing for sure what happened without pivoting around and looking at the scoreboard. Sometimes, it merely confirms what they suspect. Sometimes, it knocks them over.
So here was Jacoby on Tuesday morning, turning to the scoreboard, removing her goggles. The look that followed? Her mouth made an “O,” and she looked for all the world like a shocked fish, as if she had just seen a 17-year-old from a tiny, coastal Alaska town beat the world record holder to win gold.
“She’s just a wonderful young woman and just about as humble and sweet as could be,” said Odhner, the cafe owner. “It couldn’t happen to a better family.”
Monday night in Seward, several hundred townspeople gathered in the ferry terminal, masked-up, for a watch party. When Jacoby’s hand touched the wall first, the building about burst. “There were so many tears,” Odhner said. After a while, the adults started spilling back into town to celebrate at the bars.
“She had the swim of her life today,” King said, “and that’s awesome.”
That life, all 17 years of it, began in Alaska. It changed here in Tokyo.
“I think having this extra year and having it be such a hard year for the whole world, I think it means a little bit extra to be here today as an Olympian,” Jacoby said, “to be able to be a part of the whole world coming together again after all that we’ve been through.”
Sometimes, it helps to be reminded why we watch the Olympics. Thanks to Lydia Jacoby — for the race and the reminder.