By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, March 22, 2019Before choosing to focus her athletic attention on swimming, Phoebe Bacon excelled on land and ice as well as in the water.
As a child, she played ice hockey, soccer and lacrosse before ultimately deciding in junior high that while she was good in all sports, in order to be a champion, she needed to put all of her efforts and energies into one.
Fortunately for swimming, water won out.
Now, Bacon’s not only on the U.S. National Team for the first time but she’s also a strong contender to make her first Olympic Team next summer.
Suffice it to say, she’s happy with her decision.
“Swimming was always my favorite, and I always kind of knew my best opportunities were in swimming, but I do miss soccer sometimes,” said Bacon, a high school junior backstroker for Nation’s Capital Swim Club in Maryland.
“My coaches wanted me to pick swimming to focus on it. It was a tough decision at the time, but I know I made the right decision.”
Bacon’s career in the water began as a 3-year-old when she accompanied her older brother and sister to the pool.
“My mom tells me I was a very energetic child who was hard to handle, but swimming was a great way for me to burn off all of that energy,” she said.
While her siblings stopped swimming in junior high (brother) and high school (sister), Bacon said she stuck with it because she loved the social aspect of the sport.
That, and she loves to race.
“I loved being around all of my friends at the pool, and even though I love to race and win, I’ve never allowed that to keep me from being friends with the teammates I swim against,” she said.
“I might need to build more of a killer instinct in the future, but I can’t imagine it will come at the cost of my friendships. They’re too important to me.”
While she develops that instinct, Bacon is putting together an impressive swimming career despite being just 16.
She won’t turn 17 until August 12, which just happens to be the day after the conclusion of the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.
Bacon will compete in the 100 backstroke as a member of the U.S. Pan Am delegation, and with it being her first senior-level international competition, she said she’s excited to experience the meet and learn from it to improve for the future.
“I’m competing in the Mare Nostrum prior to Pan Ams, so I’m expecting lots of opportunities to learn and get better this summer,” said Bacon, who earned a spot on the team with her fourth-place finish at 2018 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships in Irvine, Calif.
“This will be my first trip with the National Team, so I’m excited to meet a bunch of new people and definitely represent my country. Of course, I want to swim fast, but I also want to have fun and enjoy the experience.”
But Bacon is no stranger to big competitions – having won three gold medals (100 back, 400 mixed medley and medley relays) at 2018 Junior Pan Pacific Championships last summer in Fiji.
Considering two years earlier at 2016 Olympic Trials, she finished 83rd in the 100 back as a 13-year-old, Bacon has made incredible strides to drop time and move up in the U.S. and world ranks.
She acknowledges that with those results come increased expectations – from herself as well as her coaches and everyone in and around the sport.
But for the time being, she said she’s going to continue to focus on enjoying the process, learn from her competition experiences and evolve as a swimmer and competitor – but not lose sight of what’s most important to her.
“I always want to make sure I continue to find the joy – the love – of swimming; that’s when I swim my best and my fastest,” said Bacon, who insists she’s never played “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” despite sharing the same last name. “I know that if I lose that love, then I’ve also lost what makes swimming enjoyable for me.
“I’m confident the results will come if I just keep having fun. It’s who I am. I have to be true to that.”
Speaking of 2016 Trials, Bacon said she was “awestruck” by the enormity of the event – the size of the arena, the massive number of people in the stands, etc.
But what truly stood out to her as a “giddy” 13-year-old was meeting her swim idols like Natalie Coughlin and Michael Phelps, among others.
“It’s really amazing to meet someone you’ve looked up to your entire life and have them acknowledge you,” she said. “Getting to meet Michael and Natalie – and then speak with them – was such a fun experience.”
Bacon said while that meet almost three years ago was a “trial run” of sorts to gain experience, she knows next year at Trials again in Omaha will be a different story – with much different goals.
But the core – having fun – won’t be changing.
“I’ll have so much more big-meet experience next summer (at Trials) than I did in 2016, so my expectations will be much different, but I feel like you’ve still got to have fun,” said Bacon, who has narrowed her college choices to Wisconsin and Georgia. “The swimming community has been and continues to be such a supportive environment full of close friends, that I think that helps build the incredible athletes who compete for Team USA.
“There’s nothing quite wearing that black USA cap in the finals of races and knowing you’re competing for the United States. I’m looking forward to doing that this summer and many summers moving forward. I’ve got lots of swimming ahead of me.”