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Phoebe Bacon joins elite company in U.S. swimming’s strongest events

Phoebe Bacon (2:06.84) edges world-record holder Regan Smith (2:06.90) and wins the women's 200m backstroke at the 2021 TYR Pro Swim Series, recording the third and fourth fastest swim times in the world this year.

Phoebe Bacon carved a place in the most decorated discipline in American swimming, at a time that the U.S. boasts Olympic and world championships medalists and the world-record holder in the women’s backstrokes.

Bacon, an 18-year-old who just finished her freshman season at Wisconsin, won the 200m back on Friday night in Indianapolis, at the last Tyr Pro Swim Series stop before the Olympic Trials in Omaha in one month.

The victory stood out for the time: 2:06.84, third-fastest in the world this year and 1.98 seconds better than her personal best coming into the day.

And for the competition: Bacon edged world champion and world-record holder Regan Smith, 19, by six hundredths.

“Nothing’s more fun than racing Regan,” Bacon said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “It’s a warm-up for Trials.”

Full meet results are here. Competition concludes Saturday with finals on NBCSN, and the NBC Sports app at 6 p.m. ET.

Many swimmers are racing this weekend for the last time before Trials, where the top two per individual event qualify for Tokyo.

Bacon’s obvious ties are to Katie Ledecky, her reported “big buddy” as a pre-K student at Little Flower School in Bethesda, Md., when Ledecky was a fourth-grader. Bacon followed Ledecky to Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart. Though Bacon didn’t matriculate at Ledecky’s Stanford, she did choose Ledecky’s former coach, Yuri Suguiyama, now the head coach at Wisconsin.

"[Ledecky] is always asking me about my swimming, and, of course, I’m always reading and watching about her swimming. I’m always asking her about hers,” said Bacon, who conversed with Ledecky virtually during the pandemic and saw her in person. “She’s a really great person for me to look up to and a big help, I would say, for my swimming career.”

But now, Bacon must be grouped with a whole set of accomplished American swimmers: the backstrokers. Like Smith, Kathleen Baker (who had the 100m back world record before Smith took it in 2019) and Olivia Smoliga (2019 World 100m back bronze medalist).

Bacon’s arrival on the elite level also came in 2019. She upset Smith in the 100m back at the U.S. Open, four months after Smith broke both backstroke world records at the world championships. The time put Bacon second in the nation for the year and made her a contender, if not a favorite, to make the Olympic team in 2020.

With the Olympic postponement, Smith deferred enrollment at Stanford from 2020 to 2021. Bacon chose not to, moving to Madison as scheduled, albeit during the middle of a pandemic (though not with the 1992 Jeep Wrangler that she and her dad refurbished).

Bacon finished third in the 100 back and won the 200 back at the NCAA Championships in March. The results reflected her change in outlook under Suguiyama, who coached Ledecky to the 2012 Olympics at age 15.

“Prior to coming into college, I felt more I was like a 100 backstroker, I felt more of a sprinter, like I have that power,” said Bacon, who in spring 2020 trained in a family friend’s 15-yard basement pool in Potomac for several weeks. “But coming into college, and as I’ve been working with my new head coach, Yuri, I’ve noticed that I have the strength for a 200.”

Now, Bacon ranks No. 3 in the U.S. in the 100m back and in the 200m back since the start of 2019. With a strong 100m back on Saturday, she could enter the Trials ranked No. 1 in the country in both events in 2021.

Five years ago, Bacon was reportedly the third-youngest swimmer of more than 1,800 at Trials. At age 13, she finished 83rd in the 100m back.

“It wasn’t about swimming fast and going another best time at that level of a meet,” she said. “It was just getting used to that environment and seeing that fast swimming and imagine myself being there in the next four, now five, years.”

In other events Friday, Smith edged Rio Olympian Kelsi Dahlia in the 100m butterfly, another deep event. Smith clocked 57.68 to prevail by .07. The fastest Americans this year, and since the start of 2019, have been high schoolers -- Claire Curzan (56.20) and Torri Huske (56.69).

Michael Andrew, who on Thursday clocked the second-fastest 100m breaststroke in American history, swam a personal best in the 100m fly to become the fifth-fastest American man ever in that event. Andrew touched in 50.80. Caeleb Dressel, the world champion and world-record holder at 49.50, recorded a 51.15 on Friday to win at a meet in Atlanta. Joseph Schooling, the surprise Rio Olympic champion, swam 52.93 in the B final in Indy.

Also in Atlanta, Chase Kalisz won the 400m individual medley over Rio Olympic teammate Jay Litherland, clocking 4:13.64, the fastest time by an American this year.

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