Olympic gold medalist Lydia Jacoby shared stories of her rise to the top with some of Sitka’s youngest swimmers, in a one-hour pool session on Friday (1-28-22).
And when that was done, they dived in to practice with – and race against – one of the fastest women in the water.
At the Mt. Edgecumbe Aquatics Center
On the pool deck, Lydia Jacoby – somewhere south of 6-feet tall – towers over the 30-odd Baranof Barracudas swimmers schooling around her. On the starting block, she is every inch the larger-than-life Olympic athlete who captured the gold medal in the Women’s 100-meter breaststroke last summer.
Barracudas coach Kevin Knox has a plan.
Knox – We have one more drill we’re gonna do we’re gonna end at the deep end, everybody when you get down there climb out and we’re gonna find a few people to race.
Barracudas – (cheer and moan a bit)
Jacoby, the 17-year old high school senior from Seward, has been warming up in the water with the young swimmers, moving from lane to lane, chatting. She gave a short talk beforehand to introduce herself to the kids and parents, and let them pass around her gold and silver medals from the Tokyo Olympics.
But there’s no one here who doesn’t feel like they know her already. Jacoby is the only Alaskan swimmer ever to qualify for the Olympic games, and her gold in the 100 breaststroke was breathtaking to watch… and watch, and watch again.
KCAW – Did you guys watch Lydia win the 100 breaststroke in the Olympics?
Edith Johnson – Oh yes, we did. And we replayed it probably 10 times after that. She was just so pumped.
Edith Johnson is in the bleachers while her daughter Addison swims laps with Jacoby. Even though the two girls are just a few years apart in age, Johnson says this feels like a hero moment for Addie.
Johnson – She’s been counting her sleeps. She’s been so excited to see Lydia. She made her card. Every day she has been talking about it. So yeah, this totally made made her school year.
At the starting blocks, Knox and Jacoby organize the swimmers into heats, youngest to oldest, to take on the fastest female breaststroker in the world. And then he starts the race.
Knox – Ready…. Hup!
Nine swimmers shoot from the blocks, but Jacoby remains standing on hers. When the kids are nearly halfway down the pool, Jacoby dives in and breaks the surface just in front of the pack, swims two or three strokes to touch the wall, then turns and waits for everyone to catch up.
Jacoby gives the same starting advantage to all the age groups, and the competition tightens up a bit with the teens.
James Nellis just managed to edge out Jacoby.
KCAW – did you touch the wall before Lydia?
Nellis – Yes.
KCAW – What does that feel like?
Nellis – It’s it’s crazy. I don’t even know what to say.
KCAW – How long have you been swimming?
Nellis – Three years.
KCAW – Yeah, cool. I think she gave you a little bit of a head start.
Nellis – Yeah.
KCAW – How old are you?
Nellis – 13.
KCAW – Did anything Lydia say inspire you to keep swimming?
Nellis – When she said a lot of her friends were dropping out and she wanted to quit. I’ve felt that before, and I thought I’m gonna keep going now.
I took note when, in her talk to the kids, Jacoby mentioned that just as she was breaking into the record books in Alaska as a 12-year old, her friends began turning to other more social sports. Kevin Knox says it is something every swimmer struggles with. It’s the most solitary of team sports.
“You know, when you’re trying to stay in and get better and better and better, you have to keep at it,” said Knox. “It’s not the same as you know, a season of basketball or a season of baseball or something else like that. You have to stick with it because it’s tough.”
When the races were done, and the autographs signed, I asked Jacoby if she ever experienced a day like this one, when someone helped motivate her.
“I was really inspired by Jessica Hardy,” Jacoby answered. “She was the world record holder in the 100 breaststroke before Lily King. She came to do a clinic with our team a few years ago, when I was 13, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. And she’s been super encouraging through the whole Olympic process for me, so she’s been awesome.”
Jacoby shared some Olympic stories with the kids, the early-morning hours, the intense training, and how to take into competition whatever attitude helped you in practice. She said that she was just glad to have made it to the Olympics; her thrill at winning was written all over her face on the video.
I told Jacoby what 13-year old James Nellis had told me, that he had decided to keep swimming, despite feeling the pull of friends and other sports. In other words, her message had landed.
“Yeah, that’s great to hear,” said Jacoby. “I mean, I think that’s definitely something that happens in a lot of the sports like running, swimming, skiing, you know, people don’t think of them as “cool.” So it’s neat to kind of gotten to this level and realize how cool it really is and know what amazing people keep doing it. So I’m glad that he’s gonna stick with it. And I hope more consider doing that too.”
And there were a few swimmers at the Mt. Edgecumbe Aquatics Center who were going to stick with it – with or without inspiration from a charismatic Olympian. Dean Orbison is an Alaska Masters silver medalist in the 100 fly in the 60-year-old age group. He had Jacoby sign the back of his t-shirt. Tom Jacobsen, a local dentist, holds the Alaska Masters gold for the 200 backstroke for 65-and-up.
KCAW – Dr. J, were you inspired today?
Jacobsen – I am inspired. And yeah…(laughing) Inspired is how much faster she is than I am.