Alaskan 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby pulls off upset to win gold in 100 breaststroke

U.S. swimmer Lydia Jacoby celebrates after winning gold in the women's 100-meter breaststroke.
U.S. swimmer Lydia Jacoby celebrates after winning gold in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Lydia Jacoby didn’t know what to do.

The 17-year-old touched the pool wall, turned to check the scoreboard and a stunned look filled her face.

Thundersticks clapped, vuvuzelas screeched and the handful of people allowed inside the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Tuesday shouted loudly enough to make the 15,000-seat building feel, at least for a moment, like it wasn’t mostly empty.

News, results and features from The Times’ team of 12 reporters who covered the Tokyo Olympic Games in the summer of 2021.

Aug. 8, 2021

The first gold medal at the Summer Games for the powerful U.S. women’s swim team didn’t come from a big name or world-record holder, but from an Alaska native who will be a high school senior this fall and is the first Olympic swimmer in the state’s history.


Jacoby pulled away in the final meters of the 100-meter breaststroke to edge South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker, who finished second, and Lilly King, the defending Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder, in one of the biggest surprises in the swimming competition at the Games.

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

King had followed her victory in the event at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 — which included plenty of verbal sparring with Russia’s Yulia Efimova over a past doping suspension — with world championship titles in 2017 and 2019.

But Schoenmaker, better known for her ability in the 200 breaststroke, beat King and broke her Olympic record during the semifinals Monday. It was King’s first defeat in the event since 2015. That kind of setback usually pushes her to do something remarkable.

“The greater the stakes, the more the pressure, the happier she is,” Ray Looze, King’s coach, said last month. “So if she gets to race somebody that’s a threat, she gets super excited and that’s when you’ll see the best come out of Lilly.”

U.S. swimmer Lydia Jacoby celebrates with teammate Lilly King after winning the gold medal.
U.S. swimmer Lydia Jacoby celebrates with teammate Lilly King after winning the gold medal. King finished third.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

That’s what appeared to happen in the first half of Tuesday’s final, as King bolted to an early lead. But Schoenmaker pulled ahead at the 50-meter mark. And Jacoby, one of 10 teens on her team, beat both to the wall.

She finished in 1 minute 4.95 seconds, 0.27 seconds ahead of Schoenmaker and almost six-tenths of a second in front of King. The defending gold medalist ducked under the lane lines and corralled Jacoby in a bear hug while slapping the water in celebration.

“We love to keep that gold in the USA family, so this kid just had the swim of her life and I’m so proud to be her teammate,” King told NBC.

Jacoby grew up in Seward, Alaska, and five years ago attended a swim clinic where the instructors included Jessica Hardy, the former Olympian who trained with the Trojan Swim Club. Jacoby’s family relocated to Anchorage during the pandemic to find an open pool for her to train. That allowed the sport to be a big part of her life during the one-year postponement.

“This extra year of training I’ve grown physically and mentally,” she said in June. “I don’t think I would have been prepared last year.”

Jacoby’s win was a bright spot during an underwhelming day for the U.S.

Australian Kaylee McKeown won the women’s 100 backstroke with an Olympic-record time in one of the most tightly contested races at the Games. It was the fifth time this week the Olympic record has been broken in the event. U.S. teen Regan Smith bested the record twice, including during the semifinals, but faded to third in the final.


Ryan Murphy, the world-record holder and defending gold medalist in the men’s 100 backstroke, didn’t fare any better. Russians Evgeny Rylov and Kliment Kolesnikov finished 1-2, while Murphy held on for bronze. The loss snapped the U.S. streak of winning gold in the event at six consecutive Olympics.

Meanwhile, Katie Ledecky clocked the third-best semifinal time in the 200 freestyle ahead of Wednesday’s grueling double in which she’ll swim finals in 200 and 1,500 within a little more than an hour. She is a virtual certainty to collect gold in the long-distance race — the first time it’s been part of the women’s program at the Olympics — since she owns the 11 fastest times in history. One of them came during the preliminaries late Monday night.

“None of it felt extraordinary, but I knew even as I was swimming it that the time was going to be good just because I’m swimming well,” Ledecky said after the 1,500. “‘I’m in a good spot. My stroke feels good. So, I knew it would come pretty easily.”

The 200 offers another duel with Ariarne Titmus — one of three that will take place during the finals — after the Australian beat Ledecky in the 400 this week.

But the swirl of attention Tuesday — and the gold medal — belonged to Jacoby.

“A lot of big-name swimmers come from big powerhouse clubs,” she said. “But coming from a small club and a state with such a small population shows that you can do it no matter where you’re from.”