OMAHA — When Phoebe Bacon was all of 4 or 5 years old, she was assigned a school “buddy,” an older student who’d show her the ropes at Little Flower School in Bethesda. She happened to be paired with a mentor, maybe 10 or 11 at the time, named Katie Ledecky.
“I don’t know how randomly that was assigned or if our teachers knew she was starting to swim,” Ledecky recalled. “From a very young age, she was always super-active, the girl who would play on the playground. I think I was like that as well. I think maybe that’s why we were matched. I’ve always followed her since then.”
Despite the age difference, Ledecky remained her buddy through the years, as Bacon followed Ledecky’s footsteps to Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda and then swam for Nation’s Capitol Swim Club. “Neither of us, I think, had the knowledge of where swimming was going to take us then,” Bacon said.
And certainly no one could’ve predicted this back on the playground all those years ago, but this summer they’ll be Olympic teammates, with both set to represent the United States in Tokyo.
Bacon, 18, earned her spot on Team USA with a second-place finish in a thrilling 200-meter backstroke Saturday night, chasing down world-record holder Regan Smith on the final lap. Bacon touched the wall in 2:06.46, which was 0.73 seconds behind Rhyan White but more importantly, 0.33 seconds ahead of Smith.
“Looking up at the scoreboard, it’s like a lot of emotions,” Bacon said. “You see first, second — you’re just like, ‘Oh my God!’ It’s just such a special moment.”
The seeds to her Olympic dream, of course, were planted by Ledecky. Bacon was 10 years old when her buddy went to the 2012 Summer Games — Ledecky was all of 15 at the time, the youngest member of Team USA in London — and won a gold medal there.
“That was kind of eye-opening to me,” Bacon said. “This young girl from the same area, same schools that I’ve been going to made her dreams come true. I wanted to follow in her footsteps.”
Bacon has been an area standout and despite her young age, was considered an outside threat for the U.S. team a year ago, before the trials and the Olympics had been postponed. She graduated from Stone Ridge and enrolled at Wisconsin, swimming for Yuri Suguiyama, who was Ledecky’s former coach at Nation’s Capitol.
Bacon could be among the young swimmers that actually benefited from the year-long postponement, as she built up strength and worked to make the 200 among her best distances.
“Having this entire year to switch and learn how to swim a 200 has definitely been a big help. I don’t really know where I would’ve placed a year ago,” she said.
Bacon’s best shot a year ago was probably the 100-meter backstroke, and she still had high hopes for that event here at trials. But in the finals last Tuesday, she finished in sixth place, 1.23 seconds behind Smith and nearly a full second away from making the Olympic team. The 200 backstroke was her final chance, and she had to keep her spirits up during a grinding week.
Ledecky was around to help.
“Every time we passed, whether it be in the warm-down pool or by the massage tables, she’s there saying good luck or great job,” Bacon said. “ … She’s definitely been a big supporter through this whole meet.”
Bacon breezed through the preliminary heats and posted the second-fastest time in the semifinals. But the field in Saturday’s final couldn’t have been more stacked.
There was Smith, of course, the record holder and two-time world champion; Kathleen Baker, a two-time Olympic medalist; plus White, the 21-year old who already locked up her spot on the Tokyo-bound team.
She knew the field would likely go out faster, as Smith was sure to push the pace.
“I just had to stay calm and know that my back 100 was really where I needed to push it,” Bacon said.
White was out front heading into the final 50 meters, but Smith was more than 0.30 seconds ahead of Bacon. Bacon kept furiously wind-milling her arms, just edging Smith to the final wall.
Ledecky also had a big night Saturday, winning her 800-meter freestyle heat and qualifying for a fourth individual event in Tokyo. As the evening session wrapped up, Ledecky sat in a staging area, listening as Bacon sat at a news conference and explained her Olympic journey.
“I don’t know exactly how much of an impact I had on her,” Ledecky said. “I hope I did.”