Lydia Jacoby salvages Team USA’s day in troubled Olympic waters

TOKYO >> At the final turn, then with 25 meters remaining, then 10, then 5, the Olympic Games 100-meter breaststroke gold medal remained within reach of three relentless women—Team USA’s Lilly King, the reigning Olympic champion, South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker, who set the Olympic record a day earlier, and Lydia Jacoby, the red-headed 17-year-old daughter of boat captains on Alaska’s Resurrection Bay, which was named by a Russian trader seeking safe waters in a storm.

All three touched the wall and then turned toward the scoreboard, Jacoby’s reaction echoing the rest of the world’s.

“What?” she seemed to say. “Wow!”

Jacoby’s unexpected victory touched off celebrations in Alaska and salvaged an otherwise rough day for Team USA in the troubled waters of the Tokyo Aquatics Center on a Tuesday morning that included Russians venturing into what has been American territory for a quarter-century.

Until the teenager’s late surge captured gold, the U.S. had but a pair of bronze medals in the morning’s three earlier finals, two of which saw men’s sweeps, Great Britain in the 200 freestyle and Russia in the 100 backstroke.

Jacoby’s triumph also capped a day full at the Olympic pool full of reminders of the absurdities of these Games and the people putting them on.

The session began with the public address announcer reading a PSA about mask-wearing and avoiding “clusters.” At that very moment, the pool deck was full of clusters of athletes, many of them unmasked, from multiple countries. In fact, there is little social distancing on Tokyo’s city streets, stores and restaurants. Athletes, officials and the media are herded onto buses and venues like cattle often no more than six inches, not six feet, apart. Spectators have been banned from Olympic venues as part of an agreement between the Japanese government, Tokyo 2020, the local organizing committee and the International Olympic Committee. Yet last week the city’s two professional baseball teams, the Yomiuri Giants and Yakult Swallows, played in front of more than 10,000 fans at the indoor Tokyo Dome.

The IOC also continues with the charade that Russian athletes here aren’t representing Russia but the Russian Olympic Committee. As if representing a national Olympic committee that implemented a systemic, state-sponsored doping program for decades, and in the case of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi right under the IOC’s nose, is more respectable.

The Russian issue, which promises to be ever-present during the Olympic track and field competition next week, emerged at the pool with Evgeny Rylov and Kliment Kolesnikov’s sweep of the 100 backstroke.

U.S. swimmers own 13 of the last 14 world records set in the event and won the last six Olympic gold medals, Ryan Murphy winning four years ago Rio de Janeiro. But Murphy, the world record-holder, couldn’t hang with the Russians Tuesday, Rylov taking the gold in 51.98 seconds, followed by Kolesnikov taking the silver at 52.00 with Murphy third at 52.19.

Great Britain swept the 200 freestyle earlier in the morning, Tom Dean barely holding of Duncan Scott 1-minute, 44.22 seconds to 1:44.26.

Australia’s Kaylee McKeown won the 100 backstroke in an Olympic record 57.47, finishing just two-hundreths of a second off the world record she set earlier this year. Canada’s Kylie Masse was second at 57.72. Team USA’s Regan Smith, who set the Olympic record in Monday’s semifinals (57.86), took the bronze at 58.05.

Jacoby was third at the turn in the 100 breaststroke. But the field should have seen the kid who competes for the Tsunami Swim Club coming. The first swimmer from Alaska to make a U.S. Olympic team was impressive in the heats and semis and in Tuesday’s final meters she would not be denied, touching the wall in 1:04.95. Schoenmaker was second at 1:05.22 with King third at 1:05.54.

An hour later the moment still hadn’t seemed to have hit Jacoby yet. During the medal presentation, she hesitated before taking the top step of the stand. A few minutes earlier Rylov and Kolesnikov stood on the same podium while the Russian anthem was replaced by Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

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