Chevy Chase’s Phoebe Bacon is bound for the 2020 Olympic trials
In the moments before a race begins, while other competitive swimmers are pumping themselves up with music or mantras, 16-year-old Phoebe Bacon can be found laughing behind the starting block. It’s not until seconds before she enters the water that the Chevy Chase teen switches into race mode. “Whether I’m on the swim deck or in the ready room, I’m goofing off,” says Bacon, who adds that her only prerace ritual is to have fun during the 10 or 15 minutes before a race. “Trying to swim scared or stressed is hard.”
Once the starting signal sounds, Bacon is all business, leading her to dominate local competition and achieve the kind of performances that have earned her a spot on the USA Swimming national team and a Fédération Internationale de Natation world ranking of 16th in her specialty, the 100-meter backstroke. Having already qualified for the 2020 Olympic trials at the USA Swimming Winter Nationals last November, Bacon, a rising senior at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, has her sights set on representing the United States at the Tokyo Games next summer.
Even at a young age, Bacon approached the sport in a unique way. She began swimming as a toddler at the Tallyho Swim & Tennis Club in Potomac. By age 4, she had accomplished her first stroke—the butterfly—and was third fastest in the age 8 and under group of the Montgomery County Swim League. As a young swimmer, Bacon brought her bright and energetic personality to the pool and set her own dress code, choosing to swim in shorts and shirts instead of traditional racing suits, according to Nation’s Capital Swim Club (NCAP) coach Mary Dowling.
Dowling, who coached Bacon from ages 7 to 12, says the teen’s potential was evident early on. “She’s special,” Dowling says. “She’s the whole package—she has the desire, the work effort, the drive and the love.”
Bacon still swims with NCAP in addition to competing for Stone Ridge, the same club and school that trained Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky. Bacon and Ledecky, 22, became acquainted as elementary school students at Little Flower School in Bethesda, and have become closer as they’ve grown older and their paths have continued to intersect. “I’ll always find her at meets and cheer for her, and she always makes an effort to cheer for me,” says Bacon, who is breaking Stone Ridge swimming records, including those held by Ledecky. “She’s such a nice, caring person. I’ve always looked up to her.”
Away from the pool, Bacon is in many ways an average teenager. She spends her weekends hiking the Billy Goat Trail in the C&O Canal National Historical Park, listening to country singers Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, and stopping by Bethesda’s Tastee Diner for chicken tenders. (“They have the best in the area,” says Bacon, who has three siblings, ages 20, 18 and 12, all of whom swam competitively.) At home, she’s often engaged in some kind of project with her father, Tim. The two have built a surfboard and a rock climbing wall over the years, and are currently fixing up a 1993 Jeep Cherokee for Bacon to drive.
When she was younger, Bacon ran cross country and played soccer, basketball, ice hockey and lacrosse—in addition to swimming competitively. But when she qualified for the 2016 Olympic trials just before her 14th birthday, she realized that swimming might be more than just another extracurricular sport. “One of the first people I saw at the trials was Michael Phelps,” says Bacon, who placed 83rd out of 164 competitors in the 100-meter backstroke. “All I kept thinking was, ‘I can’t wait to be here in four years.’ ”
Bacon approaches her Olympic pursuit the same way she approaches each race—with her trademark ease. “She’s got a lot of self-confidence, but she’s not obnoxious. She’s just strong and confident,” says Bacon’s mother, Philippa.
This summer, Bacon will compete against some of the world’s best swimmers at the Pan American Games in Peru, but she says she’s not often starstruck in the pool. “We’re both here for the same reason—to swim,” Bacon says of her competition. “They may have a gold medal, but we’re in the same heat.”
To prepare for her upcoming meets, Bacon trains for more than 20 hours each week, juggling those responsibilities with school work (math is her favorite subject) and spending time with her friends. “I see her getting a lot better as long as she’s doing what she needs to do and having as much fun doing it,” NCAP coach Tim Kelly says of Bacon, who will swim for the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall of 2020. “She’s not afraid to work hard, so the future is what she wants it to be.”
And if Bacon has her way, her future will include a trip to Tokyo as a member of Team USA. “Every day I get more and more excited,” she says.