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Like many pre-K students at Little Flower School in Bethesda, Phoebe Bacon admired her big buddy. Educators at the private, Catholic school randomly paired Bacon with a fourth grade student to be in her “buddy group,” a program that encourages students across different grades to socialize, and the two quickly became friends.
They waved to each other in the hallway, played during recess, and participated in arts and crafts. The activities did not occur often—maybe three or four events during the school year—so Bacon looked forward to spending whatever time she had with the older girl at school. “Because we thought they were so cool,” she laughs.
But Bacon didn’t know much about her big buddy, besides learning that, like her, she was a swimmer. And apparently a pretty good one.
Her big buddy’s name was Katie Ledecky.
Ledecky would go on to become a five-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the most famous swimmers in the world, but also, more importantly to Bacon, a friend who continues to influence her life. As a junior at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, Bacon is rewriting D.C.-area high school swimming record books—just like Ledecky did several years ago.
“Not many people get to say you’re good friends with such an Olympian, such an amazing swimmer and amazing athlete,” says Bacon, now 16.
And in her own way, she’s following the unprecedented Olympic path blazed by the 21-year-old pro swimmer.
“Obviously over the last couple of years she’s really blossomed as a swimmer, both at the high school level and nationally,” says Ledecky, who graduated from Stone Ridge in 2015. “So it is crazy for me … to think back: We were buddies when I was in fourth grade.”
Bacon started swimming around age 2, when her family joined the Tallyho Swim & Tennis Club in Potomac. Her parents had briefly considered joining the Palisades Swim & Tennis Club in Cabin John—whose members included the Ledecky family—but the pool had a two-year waitlist, according to Bacon’s mother, Philippa.
At the pool, Bacon would jump into the water with abandon. By 4, she could swim a butterfly stroke across the 25-meter pool, says Bacon’s father, Tim. She’s a natural, Philippa thought. “She was a very good swimmer for a 4-year-old,” adds Tim. “She exhibited very good talent at a young age. Where that would go, I had no idea.”
Later that year, Bacon joined development stroke school classes at the local Nation’s Capital Swim Club (the same club team as, you guessed it, Katie Ledecky) and enjoyed meeting new friends in the sport. Competitive meets wouldn’t enter her life until later.
While competing for Tallyho in the Montgomery County Swim League 8 and under division, Bacon qualified as an alternate for the All-Star meet. She continued to improve and break records from there. (This past summer, Bacon set MCSL records for girls ages 15 to 18 in the 100-meter short course backstroke, in 1 minute and 0.22 seconds, and the 100-meter individual medley, in 1:03.08.)
But Bacon didn’t view swimming as her sole passion, or even a ticket to the Olympics. She had far too many hobbies and interests, and swimming was the most time consuming. As she got older, her love for the sport waned, so before she turned 10, she quit.
“Coaches were definitely not happy,” Bacon says with a laugh. “Mom was not happy.”
Sitting still is a challenge for Bacon. She doesn’t like being bored. If there’s down time, she’ll go for a bike ride, or play basketball in the neighborhood. On weekends, she occasionally goes hiking on the Billy Goat Trail or she’ll find her cousins and organize cooking competitions in her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She likes to bake. Bacon will also find projects around the house to work on with her father, like building a rock climbing wall from scratch, or their current venture, rebuilding a 1993 Jeep Wrangler. Growing up, she participated in about half a dozen sports, including swimming.
During her freshman year at Stone Ridge, Bacon played on the varsity soccer team, the club ice hockey team, and the junior varsity lacrosse team—in addition to starring on the swim program made famous by Ledecky.
“People are like, ‘Oh, I’m going to nap.’ Yeah, I like my naps, but I also like going out and doing whatever,” Bacon says.
Philippa describes her youngest daughter, and third oldest child, in one word: exhausting. Try being the parent of an athletic kid with endless energy.
“She is a very busy young lady,” her mother says. “She definitely has her down time. She needs her down time and has it, but it’s a very small portion of her day.”
Giving up swimming, it turned out, freed up too much time. Extra energy piled up with no comparable outlet. After six months, Bacon decided to return with a renewed perspective. She’s enjoyed the journey since.
Swimming is where she truly excels and she sees a future in the sport. “It’s where I really felt like I felt good,” Bacon says.
By March of 2016, Bacon reached a swimming milestone that made her realize her potential. She qualified for the Olympic trials in the 100-meter backstroke at just 13 years old, and was the third-youngest of the 1,885 swimmers at the meet in Omaha, Nebraska, that summer.
The Olympic trials established an inextricable link, in more ways than one, to her elementary school big buddy.
“Everybody knows who she is,” says Tim Kelly, Bacon’s club coach at Nation’s Capital Swim Club. “Everyone in the club knows Phoebe’s name. The summer league is very big, 80-plus teams, thousands of kids. They know who she is.”
But that doesn’t mean the two are clones. Far from it. Just ask their coaches.
During a swim meet at Stone Ridge earlier this month, Bacon wandered the pool deck, shouting encouragements at her teammates. At 5-feet-10, she is as tall as many of the high school boys, and faster than several of them. She strolled around the pool with a confident walk. She is, unlike Ledecky, just as much of an athlete on solid ground as she is underwater.
“Katie on the land, you had to be cautious with her,” Stone Ridge swimming and diving coach Bob Walker says. “You did dryland with Katie, you were worried about her stumbling down and stubbing a toe or something. It isn’t like that with Phoebe. You look at Phoebe and she’s almost dancing around the deck cheering for somebody. Katie would move to that location to cheer behind the lane at a different rate.”
The two also compete in vastly different disciplines. Ledecky dominates in long distance freestyle. Bacon’s best event is the sprint backstroke.
At the USA Swimming Winter Nationals Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, a few weeks ago, Ledecky won the 200-, 400-, and 800-meter long course (50-meter pool) freestyle events. Bacon finished ninth in the 200 individual medley (2:15.96), ninth in the 100 butterfly (1:00.09), fourth in the 200 backstroke (2:11.13), and second in the 100 backstroke (1:00.02).
“I mean, how do you compare to the greatest swimmer in our sport? I don’t know if you can compare them that way,” says Kelly, her club coach. “They’re also very different swimmers, but right now they both swim on the national team. I would not be at all surprised if they both swim on the same Olympic team some day. They’re very different people, but they’re both special.”
And even if she’s not on the same trajectory as Ledecky, Bacon is on the verge of being an Olympian. Her goal, she says, is to qualify for the Olympics as many times as possible. At Nationals, she qualified for the 2020 Olympic trials in all four individual events.
Bacon says she will verbally commit to swim at a college soon, and has her eyes set on qualifying for the Olympic trials in even more events.
“I think she’s right up there,” says Ledecky. “She competes in pretty tough events, sprint backstroke events, 100 back, 200 back, those are really competitive events in the United States right now. … But if she continues on down this stretch she’s at, I think she’ll make the finals at Olympic trials, probably, and once you make the finals, it’s anyone’s game. Whether she makes the team in 2020 or not, I think she’s still very young and has a long career ahead of her.”
“I’m not trying to put any pressure on her,” the gold medalist adds. “But … if you’re on a national team, you’re one of the top swimmers in the country, and you have those opportunities ahead of you.”
During her final individual race at the Dec. 4 high school meet, Bacon broke another pool record, finishing the 100-yard breaststroke in 1:05.37, more than 15 seconds faster than the second place swimmer. Afterward, Walker looked up at the large record scoreboard on one end of the pool and pointed to where Bacon’s name would appear once again, replacing the name of another Stone Ridge swimming prodigy.
The record had belonged to Ledecky.