In diving circles, Sarah Bacon is recognized as a master on the 1-meter board. That’s always been her best event, reflected in the two NCAA championships she’s won with the Gophers and her two USA Diving national titles.
As proud as she is of those achievements, there’s one problem with being so narrowly defined. “One-meter isn’t an Olympic event,” Bacon said. “So we’re working to change that, to make me known as a 3-meter diver.”
A strong performance at the world championships would go a long way toward accomplishing that aim. Fresh off an outstanding junior season at the U, Bacon will dive at the world meet for the first time, representing the U.S. in both 1-meter and 3-meter in Gwangju, South Korea. She will begin with the 1-meter competition Friday and Saturday, followed by the 3-meter on July 18-19.
It won’t be easy to craft a new image, but nothing in Bacon’s career has come without substantial sacrifice. The Indianapolis native has fought back from two shoulder surgeries, a concussion, stress fractures in her back and burnout that almost pushed her out of the sport.
Coming to the U, where she reunited with coach Wenbo Chen, put her back on a path toward the 2020 Olympics. That quest begins in earnest at the world championships, which launch the process for countries to qualify for next summer’s Tokyo Games.
“This year, we have put in so much work on 3-meter,” Bacon said. “We’re working to get my 3-meter as consistent as my 1-meter is, and getting me as comfortable on 3-meter as I am on 1-meter before the Olympic trials next year.
“Right now, I’m feeling great, physically and mentally. I feel the best I ever have in my career. Knowing all the work that Wenbo and I put in, and everything the doctors and trainers and my family have done, it’s really gratifying to feel like everything is paying off.”
At the U.S. championships in May, Bacon won her second national title in 1-meter and was third in 3-meter. She earned the second U.S. berth in 3-meter for the world championships by recording the second-highest cumulative score over three rounds.
That performance came on the heels of a strong NCAA meet. Bacon defended her 1-meter title with a meet-record score, and she was fifth in 3-meter, marking her best finish ever in that event at the NCAA championships. She also won the 3-meter crown at the Big Ten championships with a school-record score of 430.60 points.
Bacon committed to the U because of Chen, who coached her for four years beginning when she was 10. By the time she finished high school, though, she wasn’t even sure she would continue diving. The physical and mental grind had worn her down, leading her to take a three-month respite from the sport before she started college.
“I wanted to quit. I wanted nothing to do with it,” she recalled. “I came here not even wanting to dive. But my parents said, ‘You should go dive with [Chen]. See if that sparks your interest again.’ And he completely changed the way I view it.”
Chen designed a training program that made the sport fun again, Bacon said. He revamped everything she did — from her sleep habits to her diet to her cardio workouts — and preached the importance of self-care and discipline.
He also kept her spirits up as she endured two shoulder surgeries in the past two years. Chen’s patience and positive outlook helped Bacon stay committed, even when her doctors could not guarantee the outcome.
“She worked hard on her rehab, and she came back really fresh,” Chen said. “This year, staying healthy and having consistent training really helped.
“Sarah has great power, which most girls don’t have, and a lot of talent. And she definitely can get much better in 3-meter.”
Bacon will take a leave from school during the 2019-20 season to focus solely on training toward the Olympics. Though she won’t be competing alongside her Gophers teammates at college meets, she will continue to train with them.
She and Chen will devote the coming year to building her consistency and confidence on the 3-meter board. Competing at the world championships is an important step forward; it will give international judges a chance to see her, and she will gain invaluable big-event experience.
Bacon’s aim is to finish in the top 12 in 3-meter, which would secure an Olympic berth for the U.S. She also knows that could have a major effect on how she’s perceived, as she tries to make the leap from 1-meter wonder to Summer Games contender.
“I feel like I’m in a very good spot going into worlds,” Bacon said. “I don’t think we’re going to change what we’ve been doing, since it’s been working. Hopefully, it keeps working, and I can make that Olympic team.’’