TOKYO — Let’s play Olympic bingo! Did you, following along at home, correctly predict that within 24 hours, these three things would happen:
1) The Philippines, population 110 million, would — after being part of the Summer Games since 1924 — win its first gold medal! In, of all things, the 55-kilogram category women’s weightlifting! “I sacrificed a lot,” Hidilyn Diaz said, adding a moment later, “But God had a plan.”
2) Bermuda, population 64,000, would — after being part of the Summer Games since 1936 — win its first gold, in women’s triathlon. Flora Duffy said afterward, “Competing on the world stage from a small island really is possible.”
3) Seward, population 3,000 or so, the fourth-largest town on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska — which since 1959 has been the 49th of the 50 United States — would send a teen swimmer to the Olympic Games, and even though there’s only one 50-meter pool in the entire state of Alaska, in Anchorage, and 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby is still in high school, a member of the Seward Seahawks High School Class of 2022 — school motto, “Pursue your dreams” — Ms. Jacoby would win a gold medal in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke. And decisively.
If you ticked the boxes of this trifecta, please be in touch. Many state and national lotteries await. Vegas is calling. The siren of bitcoin futures is loud, loud, so loud.
Who saw Lydia Jacoby winning the women’s 100 breast?
Not even swim junkies, that’s who.
Over the past 20 years, the only U.S. swimmers who are younger than 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby to have won an individual Olympic gold: Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin. When she hit the wall and looked up and saw she was first, Jacoby — like everyone else — seemed in disbelief. As the Anchorage Daily News reported, at the watch party in Seward, at the Alaska Railroad terminal, with about 400 people in attendance, they were waving red foam fingers that said, “Go Lydia!” The broadcast scene showed happy pandemonium.
Until that precise moment, you know who — more precisely, what — had been more famous in Alaska? The bears that eat the salmon every summer at Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park. You can watch that live-cam night and day. It’s mesmerizing. Go, salmon! Jump! Get away from the bears!
Alaska and — skiing? Sure. That’s a thing. Tommie Moe won the downhill and super-G at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games. Kikkan Randall won gold in cross-country skiing in PyeongChang three years ago.
But this is why the Olympics is so awesome.
Lydia Jacoby, for emphasis, is the very first Olympic swimmer from Alaska.
When 18-year-old Ahmed Hafnaoui won the men's 400 earlier in this meet, that was a stunner. But Ous Mellouli had already won gold at prior Olympics for Tunisia, so it wasn't completely out of the realm of the possible.
Alaska? Swimming? What's the temperature in Alaska in, say, February? Is that, you know, swim weather?
Lydia Jacoby, over Lilly King? The sassy queen of the event, the defending gold medalist? King, it is believed, had not lost a 100 breast final in any size pool, 50 or 25 meters, since December 2016, 55 meets.
“Lilly has always been a huge role model for me,” Lydia Jacobs said Tuesday. At the 2016 Rio Games, when King won this event, “I was 12 — I was little, watching her swim. It was just incredible to be able to swim next to her.”
Over South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker, who had dominated her side of the semifinals, setting an Olympic record, 1:04.82, along the way? Seriously?
Jacoby’s highlight page on the USA Swimming bio form is so skimpy that if you printed it out you maybe couldn’t even wrap one of those Alaska salmon: ‘set a 17-18 national age group record … at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials” … “2019: 12th, 100 breaststroke, 70th, 200 breaststroke”
This is a — maybe the — classic case of the pandemic extra-year proving dividends. Lydia Jacoby freely acknowledged in a news conference after her victory that she and her family were planning to come to Tokyo 2020 last year. As fans. She was nowhere good enough to make the U.S. team.
Lydia’s parents, Leslie and Richard, are both boat captains. He also, as the Anchorage paper has reported, leads expeditions to Antarctica. Lydia said her parents threw her in the water early so she could be boat safe. She started competing, she said, when she was 6.
Maybe the fates foretold something special from the get-go. Lydia Jacoby was born on February 29.
At a meet in California, when she was 14, Lydia Jacoby swam 1:11.05 to win an age-group title. Her pre-pandemic best, again according to the Anchorage Daily News, was 1:08.12. After taking a couple of months off, Lydia said Tuesday, she — for the first time — trained year-round, sometimes in Anchorage, sometimes in Seward. But — and this is an almost unbelievable part of the tale — at pools half the size of the Olympic distance. Like the kind you might find at a country club, 25 yards.
This spring, at a race in Mission Viejo, California, she came second to King with a 1:06.38.
Then, at the Trials in Omaha, she finished second, again behind King, in 1:05.28.
On Tuesday, in the Olympic final, she went 1:04.95.
In three years, that’s a drop of six seconds.
This is why no one saw this coming.
Schoenmaker touched in 1:05.22, 27-hundredths behind; King, 1:05.54, 59-hundredths back.
“I wouldn’t say anything didn’t work,” King said. “These girls all had fantastic races and they beat me.”
Now: who would have predicted that?