In many ways, 16-year-old Phoebe Bacon is like many kids her age. The Chevy Chase native is learning how to drive and is looking at potential colleges as she heads into her junior year of high school.
In one big way, though, Bacon is different. In the pool, Bacon, who swims for Nation’s Capital Swim Club at its American University site, has become one of the best young swimmers in the country. After a stellar meet at last month’s U.S. Nationals in Irvine, California, Bacon will represent the United States in at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships in Fiji from Aug. 23 to Aug. 27. The meet brings together many of the top swimmers ages 13 to 18 from non-European countries around the world, including Australia, Canada and Japan.
Bacon qualified based on her performance in the 100-meter backstroke, a race in which she finished fourth in the finals, in 59.31 seconds. That time was a little off her preliminary swim of 59.12, which is the second-fastest U.S. performance ever in the 15-16 age group. It was the first time she had been under a minute in the event.
“The time in prelims I was really happy with that,” Bacon said. “Going into finals I gained a little bit, but I was still so happy that I was under a minute twice in a day, which I thought was awesome.”
The meet was another step in Bacon’s rapid rise in the sport At age 12, she qualified for the National Club Swimming Association (NCSA) Summer Junior Nationals, which is one of the fastest meets in the country for age 18-and-under swimmers. Seven months later, she qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 100m backstroke, when she was just 13 years old. Last summer, she swam in the final at U.S. Nationals for the first time, making the consolation final in both the 50m and 100m backstroke. Even after she took another step forward this summer, Bacon’s coach, Tim Kelly, wanted her to focus on the swim itself, not the result.
“Most of her peers at that age are focused on time,” Kelly said. “And she’s focused on what she’s doing in the race (and) the simpler things that really effect that end-all, be-all.”
This mindset, Kelly said, served Bacon well at nationals. In the finals of the 100m backstroke, Bacon had a poor start and trailed the leaders by nearly half-a-body-length. Instead of panicking, Kelly said she stuck to her race plan and fought her way back, to finish fourth.
“What could be a big mistake and a catastrophic error for some kids and lets it bother them, she just goes right back to work,” he said.
That ability to make adjustments reminds Kelly of five-time Olympic Gold medalist Katie Ledecky. Ledecky swam for Bacon’s current club and graduated from Stone Ridge High School in Bethesda, which Bacon currently attends. The two are good friends, and Bacon says they look for each other at meets.
“She always comes and says hi, or I’ll say hi to her,” Bacon said. “Every time she’ll visit back home she tries to go to Stone Ridge, and she’ll try to find me or I’ll try to find her.”
At the Junior Pan Pacific Championships, Bacon said she still plans to swim fast and get some best times, but still wants to have fun even if she doesn’t swim well. According to Kelly, that shouldn’t be hard with her personality. In her first international trip with the NCSA select team to go Ireland in April, Bacon was named a team captain, despite being one of the team’s younger swimmers.
“(When) she’s goes to [swim] meets, she knows everybody,” Kelly said. “But that’s her personality. It doesn’t matter whether someone’s fast or slow; she has a personality that’s all inclusive to everybody.”
After swimming at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships, Bacon said she’ll continue to train with the 2020 Olympic Games on her mind. That involves not just doing everything she can right in the pool, but also taking care of things outside of swimming, like eating right and getting enough sleep.
To make sure she’s staying consistent during practice, Kelly said Bacon puts a tempo trainer in her cap at the beginning of practice that coaches monitor for specific sets. That way, he or another coach on deck can remind her to keep her arm turnover steady even when she gets tired. Hand speed and underwater kicking are already two of Bacon’s strengths, but Kelly said Bacon will only continue to improve as she gets older and gets stronger.
Even though Bacon has a legitimate shot to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2020, Kelly said that’s not his main goal for her. Bacon will head off to college that fall, and Kelly said he’s focused on trying to develop her for the long term rather than the short term.
“Our goal is not this year or next year, but our goal is, what is she going to do seven, eight or nine years from now if she has that ability to have an opportunity to stay in the sport for a long time,” he said. “That’s the important thing for her.”