Wisconsin’s Phoebe Bacon ‘Pumped’ for Olympic Backstroke Reunion at NCAAs

Phoebe Bacon; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Wisconsin’s Phoebe Bacon ‘Pumped’ for Olympic Backstroke Reunion at NCAAs

As the NCAA postseason spring of 2021 turned toward an Olympic summer, Phoebe Bacon was squarely in the pack of American backstroke contenders.

She’d worked hard to place herself in that conversation, via the Nation’s Capital Aquatic Club pathway that landed her at Olympic Trials at age 14 and twice atop the Pan Am Games podium just before her 18th birthday. But over a minute and 48.32 seconds at the Greensboro Aquatic Center in March, the University of Wisconsin freshman transformed herself not just into an NCAA champion but vaulted to the fore of the American backstroke field.

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Phoebe Bacon at NCAAs in 2021

“I was definitely really happy with my performance at NCAAs,” Bacon said last week. “Being a freshman, that was a pretty cool thing to happen. I do think it helped my confidence going into Trials because it helped to show that I made a good decision coming into college instead of deferring a year, and it helped me put a lot more trust – I trust Yuri (Suguiyama) and I trust the coaching staff here – but that was a boost to confidence, a boost to my trust and got me really excited for the long-course season.”

The affirmation of NCAAs helped catapult her to a runner-up result in Omaha at U.S. Olympic Trials and fifth place in Tokyo in the 200 back. It also means a more seasoned Bacon will return to NCAAs this year, with even bigger goals.

Bacon wasn’t a longshot at NCAAs last year. She’d had a tremendous freshman season for the Badgers and swam in a pair of A finals at NCAAs before the victory, taking fourth in the 200 individual medley and third in the 100 back. How she won the 200 back – with the top four seeds clustered with .15 seconds after prelims, then Bacon blasting a 27.90 final 50 that was the fastest in the field by a clear half-second – boded well for what she’d replicate in Omaha.

There, again, she entered as an underdog. Again, she got the better of a favored swimmer who had earlier won the 100 back (at NCAAs, it was Katharine Berkoff; at Trials, Regan Smith). And again, she rocketed through a stellar final 50 meters, her 32.39 split nearly a second quicker than Smith to shock the world-record holder and drop her to third.

Growth begets growth for Bacon, and the experience of the Olympic stage and all the training around it has made her a wiser swimmer.

“For me, it was definitely a little terrifying (at Trials), but at the same time, it’s prepared me for everything else the swimming world can throw at me,” she said. “Walking on the deck at Big Tens and having the stands packed with people, it’s not going to be a new feeling. It’s going to be like I’m right back where I was competing at Trials or in Tokyo, and it’s just going to get me fired up and ready to go.”

One of those details is the backstroke reunion that NCAAs will serve as. Among a historically young Team USA in Tokyo, the college contingent of backstrokers managed to stand out. Smith will be there to represent Stanford, along with Rhyan White of Alabama, who made it to Tokyo over both distances.

Bacon treasures the dynamic that group fostered in Tokyo and in the training trip preceding it. She’s learned valuable lessons in leadership that she’s tried to impart in Madison this season, trying to reflect the general sense of positivity that pervaded that camp.

But when the races start in Atlanta, friendships will take a backseat to the competitiveness that drove that group.

“I know as soon as we get to NCs and we’re down on deck with each other, it’s going to light a fire under all of us and get us really pumped,” Bacon said. “There’s some rivalry going on. Of course I don’t want to let Rhyan beat me, and Rhyan wants to beat me, and you have Regan in there. It’s going to be a fight, but I think it’s going to have all of us going some very fast times.”

She’ll bring momentum into the meet, off a stellar Big Ten Championships. She did the backstroke double, was third in the 200 IM and could swim up to four relays at NCAAs with the Badgers, who in finishing fourth as a team notched their best team finish in five years.

For Bacon, all of that growth comes in perspective. Some of her formative swimming memories involved looking up to her NCAP teammate, Katie Ledecky. Not even halfway through her college career, she’s on the other side of that, the athlete being invited to talk to school groups or that young swimmers idolize.

It’s yet another dimension in which the version of Bacon that steps on deck at NCAAs will have grown from the one last spring.

“I knew since I was younger that I always wanted to be some big athlete in the world,” she said. “I had a love of soccer, ice hockey, you name it – I love it. But I don’t think I ever could’ve imagined that I would’ve been doing to the Olympics for swimming when I was that young.”

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