Teenager Phoebe Bacon Sizzles and Makes Her Mark on National Level

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By David Rieder.

It took less than a minute for Phoebe Bacon to declare herself a force. Her moment came on a sunny Saturday morning in Irvine, Calif., the fourth day of this summer’s U.S. Nationals, when she swam a time of 59.12 to qualify for her first-ever national final as the second-ranked swimmer.

She was just 16 years old, she was a virtual unknown to many even deeply involved in the sport, and she was the 21st-fastest swimmer in history.

For the record, Bacon is also a big fan of hiking—even on a rainy day, she insists—and one of her favorite hobbies outside of swimming is rebuilding a jeep with her dad. And no, she doesn’t mind the inevitable questions about her last name that come up almost every time she meets somebody.

“I’ll ask them their name, they’ll ask me my name, and I’m like, ‘I’m Phoebe Bacon.’ They’re like, ‘Wait, what?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, Bacon,’” she said. “And then the big one is, ‘I didn’t want to ask you this, but I really want to know: Do you like bacon?’ And I always respond with, ‘Yes, I love it. My whole family loves it.’”

In the final, the biggest moment so far in her career, Bacon would swim next to Regan Smith, also just 16 but already a World Championships veteran and world junior record-holder. On the outside of that teenage duo were Kathleen Baker and Olivia Smoliga, the two U.S. Olympians in the 100 back from 2016. For Bacon, swimming with well-known swimmers like that quartet has taken some getting used to—but she has found the Olympians to be surprisingly… human.

“It’s definitely still a little bit intimidating. Being next to Kathleen Baker or Olivia Smoliga, it’s still intimidating because they are at such a high level, but they’re also people I really look up to,” Bacon said. “It’s also really fun in the ready rooms with them being able to just talk when everyone’s super nervous about the big finals swim, and we’re sort of in the ready room just talking. We’re saying like, ‘Oh, you painted your nails pink? That’s really cute.’”

Baker got most of the public acclaim after that race for breaking the world record, but Bacon finished fourth, her time of 59.30 a bit slower than her morning effort but still a chunk better than her lifetime best at the start of the year (1:00.81) or even from the start of the day (1:00.07).

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

For that effort, Bacon qualified to swim for the U.S. junior team for the first time at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships, and she recalled with glee the moment that she received the invitation.

“It was a really big honor,” Bacon said. “When I made it and (USA Swimming National Junior Team Director) Mitch (Dalton) came up to me and gave me the ‘you’re going to Fiji’ paper, I was just like, ‘Oh my god. I’m about to go represent my own country, Team USA, in a meet with all these other amazing swimmers.’ It was just such a great feeling and such an exciting moment.”

But Nationals wasn’t a perfect meet for Bacon. She was part of a large contingent representing the Nation’s Capital Swim Club, but from her site at American University, it was just her and her coach, Tim Kelly. And Bacon, the sort of swimmer who benefits from having teammates get her fired up daily in practice and at meets, missed their presence on deck in Irvine.

When asked why she believed her summer season was so successful, Bacon’s thoughts darted to her teammates, recalling how they had constantly been pushing her in practice. She remembered one set in particular, from a few months before Nationals, when her practice group was assigned 30×100 (short course yards): four fast repeats followed by one easy, six times through.

On the first group of four, Bacon held around 59 seconds, and then one of her teammates spoke up.

“After those first four, I think Will Tenpas said something to me like, ‘Come on, get up here with me. Stay with me on this one,’” Bacon recalled. “That really just hit me. I was like, ‘Alright, no more going 59s. 57 or below.’ I ended up holding the rest of the set one or two 56s, a couple 57s and then 58s. It was really just all due to us cheering for each other and getting super excited and hyped up for that set. It was awesome.”


More from Phoebe Bacon:

What was it like making your first National final?
“It was definitely a little intimidating at first, but after that prelims swim when I made it, I was just super excited, just was like, ‘Alright, I made it to the final. From here, let’s see what I can do.’”

Why do you think you swam so well this summer and this entire year?
“I think it had to do a lot with my teammates and the new practice schedule that I’ve been on. This past fall, I went from the silver group, which is eighth grade through freshman year of high school, into the gold group, which is 15 and older. I was doing more practices, plus I had two lifts. Just the whole group I was with, I was always racing boys and girls. There was always somebody that was in front of me, that was beating me and really pushing me during every practice, and I really think that was a big part in my success over the summer.”

What is it about having a strong, tight-knit training group that really motivates you?
“I really just think it’s just the most important part of swimming. They make practice fun. They make the meets fun. I bring joy and enthusiasm to all the meets that they go to with me and I go to with them, and every practice, I always try to say something to somebody or just get everyone excited for what we’re doing so it’s not like we’re dreading practice and we’re having fun in practice.”

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve witnessed when you’re around famous swimmers?
“Really that they’re just normal people. Yes, they are incredible swimmers—they are famous, they’re in magazines, their pictures are all over—but really, just talking to them, it’s just like I’m talking to another teammate. They’re not bragging about what they’ve done. They’re just sort of like the same as me. They’re like, ‘Oh this is going to be scary. I’m a little bit nervous for the race.’ They’re not bragging to me like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do great in this race.’ They’re just being themselves and talking.”

For you, what is the scariest part of these big races?
“When I’m behind the blocks, I’m always scared about the start. If I could, I’d start in the water and push off because the start just freaks me out. I’ve really never had a great dive or backstroke start. I’ve been working on it more and more. It’s always my biggest fear, but once I get past that, I know my underwaters are there, my stroke rate is there, and it’s going to be a good race.”

What’s the scariest part of a big meet in general?
“The scariest part of a meet probably would be the morning warm-up before your prelims swim. It’s early, usually. You don’t want to get in, but you’re like, ‘I have to get in. I have to warm up.’ You’re just like, ‘Alright, I have to warm up well. I have to do everything I need to do.’ I can get scared—if I’m not hitting my tempo, I’m like, ‘Oh gosh, I’m not going to swim well.’ Prelims warm-up can psych you out.”

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Junior Pan Pacs—what was that like as your first Team USA experience?
“It was honestly just amazing. It was so much fun. It was such a fun and exotic place that I don’t think I’ll ever get the chance to go to again. All the racing, everybody else and me, we really just did well. It was fun to watch everyone swim so well, especially Jake and Carson Foster in their 400 IM. That race was just incredible. It was and probably will be one of my favorite trips that I’ve ever been on, just because of the whole team environment and atmosphere that we were in.”

You’re a junior in high school, right around the time you’re starting to think about college. What are the aspects you’re looking for in a potential school?
“There’s a couple. One would be the whole school environment, the school town, making sure I really like the whole school mixed with the college town. A big part would be the academics. I want to go to school that has a lot of choices for academics. I have thoughts on what I want to learn, but I really don’t know, so I feel like if I go to a college that has a lot of options, I’ll be able to see and read about different ones and be like, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

What do you think you might want to do?
“I’m thinking about going into sports medicine. I’m not positive, but that’s definitely very high on my list. Another big part to what I want to have in a school is a swim team like I have back here in Maryland—having everybody cheering for each other always, being excited for practice, having fun, going and getting dinner with all of them after practice and just sitting there talking with each other. Just having fun but also getting the work in.”

Swimmers talk all the time about having to make sacrifices. What are some of the most difficult things you’ve had to say ‘no’ to because of swimming?
“A lot of times, my friends on the weekends will be like, ‘Oh, let’s go hang out at this person’s house, watch a movie or go in their pool.’ This happens a lot on Friday nights or on Saturday nights because I just want to be able to sleep and get a lot of sleep into Sunday morning. I have to say, ‘Sorry, guys, I can’t. I wish I could.’ They do understand. They’re really great. They’re like, ‘I understand you can’t come to my birthday party. You’ll be missed.’ Having them there to support me in that way is really helpful.”

Do you consider yourself a swim geek?
“I wouldn’t say so. I’ll pay attention to what’s going on in the swim world. I’ll read Swimming World Magazine. I wouldn’t say I’m only reading about swimming. I love watching soccer. I love watching ice hockey and football. I love watching other sports because they are all so fun and interesting to watch or go to a football game. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly a swim geek.”

When was the moment you realized that swimming was something you cared about the way you do?
“Probably coming into freshman year of high school, after I went to my first Olympic Trials. I wasn’t really planning on making any teams—I was just going there to have fun and check it out. And then coming into freshman year, we had high school season, which is super fun around here. ‘Let’s see what happens.’

“High school season came, and I swam really well. I had a great high school season. I was super happy with it. Our whole team did well. All of Stone Ridge did great. I was like, ‘Wow, there’s so much to do in the swimming world, and there are so many great meets and so many great people to meet and become friends with.’ I was just like, ‘Yeah, I want to do this for the rest of my life.’”

1 comment

  1. Zebron Lemke

    I don’t like the pun