TOKYO — It was a running gag at Zudy’s Cafe even before the local 17-year-old swimming sensation Lydia Jacoby put her hometown of Seward, Alaska, on the map by winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
When cruise ship passengers who swell the city’s population of 2,800 every summer arrived and saw the red, white and blue “Go Lydia” stickers being sold everywhere, they would ask where Jacoby trained.
Cafe co-owner Judy Odhner said she’d point out the window toward Resurrection Bay — the large body of water bordering the town, surrounded by jagged cliffs, deep coves and alpine glaciers.
“They can’t believe our teeny-weeny town has a pool,” she told NBC News in a telephone interview Wednesday. “They’d just as easily believe Lydia trains every day out there with the whales and sea lions. So we went with it. I mean, Lydia’s a real Alaska girl, so it’s believable.”
Jacoby’s surprise victory in the 100-meter breaststroke Tuesday quickly became the feel-good story of the Tokyo Games.
"I was definitely racing for a medal. I knew I had it in me," Jacoby told NBC News after her win Tuesday. "I wasn't really expecting a gold medal, so when I looked up and saw the scoreboard, it was insane."
But her success could mean an end to the long-running joke about her training facilities as it has revived the drive to build a new recreation center in Seward, including a brand-new swimming pool where future Olympians will be able to train.
Right now, in the entire state of Alaska, there is just one 50-meter pool about 120 miles north of Seward at Bartlett High School in Anchorage. The pool at Seward High School, where Jacoby was the star swimmer, is just 25 meters.
The new facility is likely to be on the agenda when the city council meets next on the second Monday of August, Vice Mayor Tony Baclaan said Wednesday.
“We’ve scheduled a work session tomorrow and I expect the subject of a new pool is going to come up,” he said by telephone. “Lydia had to leave town to train in an Olympic-size pool. So absolutely there is renewed interest in this.”
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
Jacoby was the first Alaskan to make the U.S. Olympic swim team before she became the first Alaskan swimmer to win Olympic gold.
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, cited Seward’s pool situation when he said Tuesday that he would make Jacoby the first two-time recipient of his “Alaskan of the Week” award, which he usually announces every Thursday in a speech from the Senate floor.
“Did you see how Seward, Alaska, responded?” Sullivan asked reporters, referring to the now-viral video footage of young residents raucously celebrating Jacoby’s surprise victory at a watch party in the city’s ferry terminal. “Remember, her community doesn't even have an Olympic-size swimming pool!”
When Jacoby was gearing up to make her Olympic debut, the pool at Seward High School was closed because of Covid-19.
Instead, she skied, and lifted weights in her garage, until it was safe to reopen the pool. Then she headed north with her mother to Anchorage to continue her training.
When the games were postponed by the pandemic, Jacoby admitted she was relieved.
“I feel like I’m in a good place now, because when they closed the pool, I was really concerned about the Olympics and the trials,” she told The Anchorage Daily News at the time. “It’s not a fair environment because not everybody’s pools are closed.”
Meanwhile, back home in Seward, some of the city’s leaders were pushing for a new pool.
According to the minutes of their Dec. 1, 2020, meeting, zoning board member Craig Ambrosiani argued that a new recreation center or pool would be “attractive for bringing new families to town.”
Baclaan said the high cost of building and then maintaining a pool of any size in Seward is a deterrent. “It costs so much to heat,” he said.
But Odhner, the cafe co-owner, said it’s now or never if Seward intends to build a new pool.
“I really hope the new pool happens,” she said. “Right now, everybody is so excited and so happy, so I think they would support it.”
It would be a new home base for the Seward Tsunami Swim Club, of which Jacoby is now the most famous member, she said.
“And Lydia wouldn’t ever have to leave Seward again to train,” Odhner said. “She’s really tied to this town.”