By Maureen Boyle | Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — It may seem like a coincidence that two U.S. Olympic teammates bound for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo attended the same Catholic elementary school and high school.
But for soon-to-be three-time Olympian Katie Ledecky, 24, and Phoebe Bacon, 18, swimming in her first Olympics, their similarities represent many shared, God-given talents that drive them to persevere and excel.
Ledecky’s and Bacon’s paths have intertwined for several years while they attended Little Flower School, swam for the high school team at the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart and have been parishioners at Church of the Little Flower, all in Bethesda, Maryland.
Ledecky graduated from Stone Ridge in 2015 and Bacon graduated in 2020. Currently, the two are in Honolulu with the U.S. Olympic Swim Team preparing for the swimming events taking place July 24 through Aug. 1. The opening ceremony is July 23 and the Games end Aug. 8.
“We’ve had the honor and joy of watching Katie and Phoebe evolve as athletes for a very long time,” said Catherine Ronan Karrels, head of Stone Ridge School. “When they compete in Tokyo, the world will witness their incredible strength as the athletes they are today, but we’ve had the unique opportunity to watch step by step, year over year, what it takes to become an Olympian.”
Karrels said she admires the remarkable fortitude and commitment both athletes have put into their swimming from a very young age.
“Despite all the hard work, including early hours, rigorous training schedules, and the juggling of many responsibilities, I have never heard either of these women complain,” she told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese. “They show us by example the type of commitment and attitude it takes to achieve excellence.”
Karrels said that even though swimming is all about personal times and goals, “both Katie and Phoebe always emphasized their commitment to and the importance of being on a team while at Stone Ridge.”
She said their distinct personalities also shine in everything they do. “Katie comes back to visit us often, and she is the embodiment of a gracious and humble champion. She always demonstrates through her actions the importance of academics, family, service to community and faith.”
“Phoebe embraces life with an explosive energy and abundant good vibes” she said, calling her positivity and “joie de vivre” contagious. “They have both been great role models not only for our students, but for all of us.”
In 2012, then-15-year-old Ledecky swam in her first Olympics in London, stunning her competition, breaking long-held records and bringing home her first gold medal for winning the 800-meter freestyle swimming race.
Four years later, at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, she won five more medals — four gold in freestyle races for the 200, 400 and 800 meters — breaking her own world records in the 400- and 800-meter races — and for the 4×200-meter freestyle relay and one silver in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, becoming the most decorated female athlete of the 2016 games.
She went on to swim for Stanford University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2020.
Once the youngest Olympian on Team USA nine years ago, Ledecky is now considered a legend and the sport’s most dominant female swimmer.
In mid-June at the U.S. Olympic Swim Team Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, Ledecky became the first American woman to qualify to swim the 1,500-meter freestyle at the Olympics. Also at the trials, she qualified to swim freestyle at the Tokyo Games in the 200-meter, 400-meter and 800-meter races, as well as the 4×200-meter freestyle relay race.
Bacon is a two-time medalist in the 2019 Pan American Games — for the 100-meter backstroke and 4×100-meter relay. She also is a a gold medal winner in the 2018 Junior Pan Pacific Championship, and a three-time Team USA member.
She attends the University of Wisconsin, and swims under Coach Yuri Suguiyama, a former coach of Ledecky’s at the Nation’s Capital Swim Club, where both girls swam when they were young.
At the Olympic Trials, Bacon earned a place on Team USA by coming in second in the 200-meter backstroke. She touched the wall at 2:06.46 in a tight race, beating Regan Smith, the world-record holder and two-time world champion, who came in third. Two current Stone Ridge students from the class of 2023, also competed at the trials, but did not make the Olympic team.
Bob Walker, the school’s swim coach, said coaching these two athletes has been an amazing journey. “Both girls are wonderful people. You couldn’t tell they are these elite athletes. They are just the most polite and pleasant people from great families.”
He downplays his role in their personal swimming achievements, recalling high school swim meets where they set records of all-time fastest individual race times and led Stone Ridge to several metro championships.
“I just put them in a lineup,” he said. “It was their own dedication. … When it’s time for competition, they just turn it up a notch, crank it up full blast and do great things in their sport.”
In a 2012 interview with the Catholic Standard, prior to the London games, Ledecky said her Catholic faith is very important to her and she prays a Hail Mary while warming up for an event, which helps calm her nerves.
She also credited the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who formerly ran Little Flower School, as great role models who were a big part of her faith when she was growing up.
During their years together in elementary school, Ledecky was matched up as a school “buddy” to kindergarten-age Bacon.
When Ledecky won Olympic gold in 2012, Bacon was almost 10. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, she said that win was “kind of eye opening to me. 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.”
Loretta Favret, principal of Little Flower School, said the students and the families of the school where Ledecky graduated in 2011 and Bacon graduated in 2016, are thrilled for them.
“What a great example of what you can achieve with hard work and perseverance,” she said, adding that the parish priests and the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters, who continue to live in the school’s convent, enjoyed watching the recent U.S. Olympic Swim Team Trials on television. “The nuns are particularly fired up.”
Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi, pastor of Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda where the Ledecky and Bacon families are parishioners, praised the young athletes for being great representatives of the Little Flower community. “We are so very proud of these two daughters of our parish and school,” he said. “We are all praying for them.”
Near the entrance to the Little Flower campus, a large sign congratulates Bacon and Ledecky on qualifying for the U.S. Swim Team at the Tokyo Olympics.
On July 19, Stone Ridge will host a pep rally for the school community to show their support for the Olympians. Because of the time difference, live-viewing gatherings for the swimmers’ individual events are not possible but the school is encouraging fans to cheer them on through social media. At the rally, there will be Olympic T-shirts, cards to sign and the opportunity to send video messages to the athletes.
“We also hope they can come to campus after the Olympics are over so we can congratulate them in person,” said Karrels.