Sarah Bacon during the medal ceremony for the Women's 1m Springboard Final at the 2019 FINA World Championships on July 13, 2019 in Gwangju, South Korea.
Sarah Bacon knows how it feels to stand on the podium for a medal ceremony at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.
“Pretty awesome,” she said.
Now Bacon just has to get back there.
In early May, she was the unexpected silver medalist in women’s 3-meter springboard at the FINA Diving World Cup, which was the test event for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Not only does Bacon want to make her first Olympic team at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Diving, which begin in Indianapolis on June 6, she wants to go to Tokyo with her best friend.
That’s Kassidy Cook, her 3-meter synchronized diving partner and a 2016 Olympian in the individual 3-meter event. They placed fifth in synchro at the world cup, securing the Olympic quota spot despite Cook’s shoulder injury.
“If you can find a partner where you get along with them and have fun with them and who just makes you grow, it makes diving way more enjoyable,” Bacon said.
Her career has been on the rise for a couple of years. In 2019, Bacon won the silver medal at the world championships in 1-meter-springboard, becoming the first American female diver to win a world or Olympic medal since Laura Wilkinson won the 10-meter platform gold at the 2005 worlds. Bacon also finished 14th on 3-meter.
“I felt like my job wasn’t done yet, because 1-meter is not an Olympic event,” she said, “and I know that I’m capable of doing really well on 3-meter.”
Bacon said she and Wenbo Chen, her coach at the University of Minnesota put our heads down and got to work after that.
“It was a great accomplishment, don’t get me wrong, but we had a lot of work to do on 3-meter after that meet,” she said.
Bacon skipped the 2020 collegiate season to concentrate on the Olympic Games, but those plans were foiled when the pandemic hit. She and Chen decided she should return to collegiate competition for the 2021 season, which was a wise choice. The 24-year-old won both 1-meter and 3-meter at the NCAA Championships, giving her a total of four NCAA titles for her career.
She also became the first diver to win the prestigious Honda Sports Award presented to the nation’s top collegiate female swimmer or diver and is a finalist for Collegiate Sports Woman of the Year.
“I got a ton of meets underneath my belt throughout the college season, and I felt way more confident going into world cup,” said Bacon, who graduated in May with a degree in kinesiology and wants to eventually become an athletic trainer or open her own gym.
Upon arrival in Tokyo for the World Cup event, Bacon adjusted to the restrictions placed on the competitors, who spent a lot of time alone in their rooms, while also trying to keep Cook’s spirits up.
“I know how bad it hurts,” Bacon said, “so I was trying to make jokes, trying to keep her laughing, to keep her mind off of her shoulder.”
But she added of her partner, “She’s the strongest person I know in this world.”
On the first day of the competition, Bacon and Cook did what they came to do and clinched the quota spot. In the individual event, Bacon was actually a substitution for Alison Gibson, who decided not to travel to Japan because she would have had to quarantine upon her return.
With Cook unable to compete, Samantha Pickens stepped in.
Bacon qualified second into the final round. In the final, she earned top scores of 73.5 points for an inward 2 ½ pike and a full-out. Only Yiwen Chen of China came out ahead of her while Bacon defeated the other Chinese entrant. Pickens was 12th to claim the second quota spot.
Bacon’s world cup medal was the first for Team USA in women’s 3-meter springboard since Kelly McCormick won the bronze in 1989.
“There’s been a lot of talk over the last year that I’m capable of medaling in synchro and individual at the Olympics,” Bacon said. “I never really let myself think that far ahead until I was in that moment at World Cup, and it was an unreal feeling being able to beat one of the Chinese divers and taking second.”
Consistency is the key.
“I think I now have the confidence that I’m capable of beating the Chinese,” she said, “if I put together a full five-dive list.”
Bacon was 7 years old when she was introduced to diving at a country club pool. Her sport at that time was soccer, but she was intrigued when a lifeguard, who happened to be a coach for a local diving club, started teaching kids how to do front and back dives.
“I got up there and I had no fear at all,” Bacon said. “I learned a front flip and a back flip in the same day and she just told me that I should get started in diving lessons.”
That fall when her parents asked if she wanted to get involved in an indoor soccer club, Bacon had a surprise for them.
“I was like, ‘No, I want to try diving’ and my parents were shocked. They’re like, ‘Diving? Where did you get this idea?’”
Bacon has been diving ever since. When she began going to competitions as an 8-year-old, she ran into 10-year-old Kassidy Cook.
“We were always each other’s best competitors,” Bacon said. “Either she was winning or I was winning, and the other one was always taking second.”
However, their paths didn’t line up to do synchro together.
“I dealt with injuries a lot when I was younger and it seemed like every time I was injured, Kassidy was doing really well and every time Kassidy was injured, I was doing really, really well,” Bacon said. “So we had to wait until we were both healthy and she was back to diving.”
Cook retired in 2018, then decided to return in the fall of 2019 without much time to prepare for the original Tokyo Olympics start date. She had been keeping up with how well her old friend Bacon was doing at the international level.
“She kind of texted me out of nowhere, and was like, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about making a comeback, do you have a synchro partner and would you want to possibly try synchro?’” said Bacon.
She’d captured the silver medal at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 with Brooke Schultz, but was open to Cook’s proposal.
“Fast forward three months, we were at a synchro camp in Indianapolis training, and we decided we were going to go for it,” said Bacon.
They have similar techniques and body types, and both say their friendship is a critical element in the partnership. They also, apparently, have similar styles away from the pool.
“We have a whole entire wardrobe of matching clothes,” Bacon said, “from socks to shirts, sweatshirts, leggings, shoes, anything, name it, and we have at least five of everything matching.”
During the pandemic, Cook, who lives in Texas, and Bacon would go back and forth to train together, with Bacon taking her online classes on the road. Her only setback was a severe case of Covid-19 around Thanksgiving after an outbreak hit the Minnesota swimming and diving program.
“She’s improved so much in the last year,” Cook said of her partner. “I’m super impressed with how far she’s come physically in her diving.”
In fact, when she studies film of the world’s best divers, she includes footage of Bacon.
“I’m in shock and in awe of how good she is,” Cook said, “and I really want to be there to support her.”
If Cook is healthy, she and Bacon could again be each other’s top rivals at the Trials.
“If we dive well individually, it makes our synchro look better,” Bacon said, “so we always wish the best for each other. We have each other to push in the pool and it’s fun competing head to head.”
Even though Bacon is from Whitestown, a small Indianapolis suburb, she is opting to stay by herself in an Airbnb that is only a mile away from the Indiana University Natatorium on the grounds of IUPUI.
“I get into competition zone better if I’m not staying in my own bed in my own house,” Bacon said.
But as always, she’ll stay in close contact with Cook. “We text like all day every day,” Bacon said.
And if all goes well, they’ll have more matching clothes after the Olympic Trials - each bearing the emblem “Team USA.”