Olympic Champion Lydia Jacoby exclusive: “I’ve swam with whales and sea lions but not in the way people imagine”

17-year-old Alaskan native Lydia Jacoby shocked the world when she brought Team USA its first Olympic gold in the swimming pool in Tokyo. Now she talks to Olympics.com about how she’s adjusting to fame and what comes next.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

If you had been in Seward, Alaska on the evening of August 5, you might have felt the tangible excitement rippling through the expectant crowd.

Hundreds of locals had gathered on the streets with star-spangled banners in hand, to greet the return of their first ever Olympic medallist: 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic women’s 100m breaststroke winner smiled and waved at her adoring fans cheering their new champion who picked up two Olympic medals in the Japanese capital: one gold and one silver.

Jacoby admits her town's support is everything, but her moment in the spotlight has taken some adjusting to.

“Since coming home… everyone knows who I am now,” the teenager shared exclusively in conversation with Olympics.com on her newfound global, and local, fame.

“Everyone wants to talk to me when I leave the house; I definitely have to mentally prepare myself to be social.”

Though the breakout star has always felt the encouragement of her town, not even they with the best of intentions could have anticipated what Jacoby would achieve in Japan.

Just in qualifying for Tokyo 2020, in 2021, she made history. No Alaskan had ever made the United States Olympic swimming team before her.

That the teen then went on to clinch the gold ahead of the world record holder and reigning Olympic champion Lilly King, and the Olympic record holder Tatjana Schoenmaker of South Africa in her first ever international swimming meet, was something no one predicted.

Days later she reinforced her star quality status in the women’s 4x100m medley relay where she played her role in securing the U.S. a silver in the event.

Jacoby returned from Tokyo a hero.

Lydia Jacoby: rising to the top and being mentored by Team USA greats

“Swimming, I think, a lot of kids get put into swim club in my town just because we are a maritime community. It’s definitely a big safety thing but I just kind of stuck with it.”

‘Sticking’ to swimming, to use Jacoby’s own words, somewhat underplays the teen’s commitment to her sport, and her exponential growth within it.

Her hometown of Seward, with its population of 2,773, is nearly a three-hour drive from the only 50m swimming pool in Alaska. The pool in which Jacoby represents Seward High School, is just 25 metres.

None of these logistical hurdles though were enough to stop the swimming star from thriving.

As the competitions came her way, she only grew, and continued to clock faster and faster times.

By the time of the U.S. Olympic trials, the Alaskan teen was seeded in third for the 100m breaststroke – and still she was a relatively unknown entity.

Lydia Jacoby podium
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Jacoby admits that the Games’ delay to 2021, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, helped her drive to the very top:

“With the postponement of the Olympics, it really gave the junior team a chance to step up and that really reflected at trials,” the teen said, talking about her Olympic experience with Team USA and her role within it.

“There were 11 teenagers that made the team so it’s pretty cool that on our team this year we had a whole group of younger people that are all kind of going through the same thing.”

“On the other side of the spectrum, you have all the amazing vets [veterans] to show you their experiences and guidance all through it. It was a great mix on the team, and it worked out great.”

On hand to support the Alaskan in Tokyo were notable swimming greats like five-time Olympic medallist Simone Manuel and seven-time Olympic champion Katie Ledecky.

“I talked with Missy Franklin a little bit as well which is pretty cool. She also won her first gold medal at a really young age, so she has a lot of experience with what I’m going through as well so that’s a great connection” - Lydia Jacoby

“That’s another thing about Team USA is that Team USA does really come first.”

Even her rival King, an early medal favourite, whose head-to-head with her South African counterpart dominated much of the talk ahead of Jacoby’s victory, mentored the young swimmer all the way in Japan.

“You can say I beat Lilly but at the same time I wouldn’t be here without her, so I think that’s a win for both us and for Team USA.”

Staying grounded while Hollywood marvels at your story

Certainly, while Jacoby felt well supported within her team in Japan, nothing can rival the backing she receives from her hometown.

So already well-known was Jacoby even before Tokyo 2020, that locals would joke with tourists that the teenager trained with local sea life in Resurrection Bay.

“I don’t practise in the bay! That’s a rumour I’ll shut down now,” Jacoby shares laughing.

“We jump in the bay me and my friends just to splash around, we don’t actually swim so I guess it is true that I’ve swam with whales and sea lions but not in the way people imagine.”

Although her community may twist the truth about her just a little bit, one thing above all they do is keep her grounded even as her name becomes commonplace in discussions of legacy and Tokyo 2020.

Her rise in the public consciousness has been so sharp the swimmer spoke about being blown away by her new Instagram following, in part helped by Hollywood legends Jennifer Garner and Reese Witherspoon amplifying her Olympic story on their own social media platforms.

“It’s definitely been weird. I mean like before Olympic trials my Instagram wasn’t even public.”

“I only had like people I knew following me, so now to have like 70-something thousand followers is pretty strange!”

While receiving praise and attention for her sporting exploits has been exciting for the swimmer, the authenticity of the encouragement she gets from those in Seward supersedes everything.

“Since it is such a small population, I get a lot of support from the community because there’s a lot more of a highlight on what I’m doing and everything, so it really is a great way to excel at sports.”

“I think a lot of people think that it’s necessary to be in a big club or be from a big place but honestly I think I might have an advantage being here" - Lydia Jacoby

“There’s just a lot of community support and you have so many people backing you who have you known you your whole life and watched your whole journey, who aren’t all of sudden just interested in because of this last step that you’ve taken."

Lydia Jacoby medal
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

The future for 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby

Rediscovering a sense of normality after such a long-awaited competition has been important to Jacoby.

She has so far enjoyed time away from the pool but now is finding comfort once again in the familiar.

“It’s been nice to catch up, school started two days ago so I'm getting back into a routine.”

“I’ve been taking a bit of a break from swimming, so I’ll probably start swimming again. I have been starting a little bit this week, but I’ll probably get more into it by next week.”

As for school, the Alaskan first intends to honour her commitment to Seward High School by graduating there as a senior. Then the rising swimming star will move to the University of Texas in 2022 for college.

“I can’t wait, I’m really excited.”

“Right now, I’m planning to study Fashion Apparel Design and Management so super excited. I’ve always loved dressing up and thrifting – all that. I’m excited to make it more part of my life and learn about it.”

If Jacoby’s story has taught the watching world anything is that self-belief is just as important an ingredient to a sporting journey as location and facilities.

That was something the Seward home-grown hero was keen to emphasise when asked about what she would say to young girls looking up to her and her Olympic fairy tale ending:

“It’s really important to remember that really anyone can do it. Anybody can make what they want to achieve happen.”

“It takes a lot of time and dedication and sometimes sacrifice but you really can get there. That’s something to remember when it gets hard – just keep going.”