How Katie Ledecky Inspired Olympic Hopefuls Phoebe Bacon and Erin Gemmell When They Were Guppies (Exclusive)

“I don't want to take credit—they’re both so talented," the Olympian

<p>Clive Rose/Getty; Courtesy of Bruce Gemmell</p> (L-R) Erin Gemmell and Katie Ledecky; Phoebe Bacon and Katie Ledecky

Clive Rose/Getty; Courtesy of Bruce Gemmell

(L-R) Erin Gemmell and Katie Ledecky; Phoebe Bacon and Katie Ledecky

Talk about a talent pool. The most decorated female swimmer in Olympic history, Katie Ledecky, and her fellow Stone Ridge High School graduates Phoebe Bacon and Erin Gemmell, are all competing in the U.S. Swimming Olympic Trials this week in Indianapolis, with hopes of the 2024 Paris Games.

The elite swimmers each attended the Bethesda, Maryland, private Catholic girls’ school — Ledecky graduating in 2015, Bacon in 2019 and Gemmell in 2023. 

“There are a lot of really great swimmers from the Bethesda area,” Ledecky, 27, who has already qualified for the Paris Olympics with wins in the 200m and 400m freestyle, tells PEOPLE.

“Erin Gemmell was on the world championship relays [last] summer and I actually got the dive off of her — she went first and I went second, so that was a really special moment for me because I've known Erin since she was seven.”

Related: Katie Ledecky Says It's 'Fun' to See Rival Swimmers Break Her World Records (Exclusive)

<p>Courtesy of Bruce Gemmell</p> Katie Ledecky with Erin Gemmell in 2012

Courtesy of Bruce Gemmell

Katie Ledecky with Erin Gemmell in 2012

Gemmell, 19, was always immersed in the world of swimming. Her father, Bruce, coaches Nation’s Capital Swim Club, where he trained Ledecky and his son Andrew, who competed in the 1500m freestyle race in the 2012 Olympics.

Erin was such a fan that she dressed up as Ledecky for Halloween when she was 8 — with the luxury of having the real gear for her costume, thanks to her father coaching Ledecky and borrowing a ‘Ledecky’ swim cap, and a brother with an Olympic sweatsuit jacket. She tells PEOPLE she credits Ledecky with her athletic success.

<p>Courtesy of Bruce Gemmell</p> Katie Ledecky and Erin Gemmell in 2013

Courtesy of Bruce Gemmell

Katie Ledecky and Erin Gemmell in 2013

“I probably would never have made it to this point if it weren’t for Katie,” says Gemmell, a rising sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin who has earned a spot on a 200m freestyle team with her fourth place finish at Trials.

“Seeing Katie as an actual human being makes it seem a lot more realistic. I could see how she got to the point of going that fast, by putting in the work, and that’s something that I knew I could do.”

A Pre-K Buddy

In Ledecky’s new memoir, Just Add Water: My Swimming Life, released June 11, she recalls first meeting Bacon in elementary school: “We were assigned “buddies” at Little Flower School, and my very first younger buddy from fourth grade was pre-K student Phoebe Bacon, who ended up on the 2021 Tokyo Olympic swim team with me, competing in the 200 backstroke. There must be, forgive the pun, something in the DMV [D.C., Maryland, Virginia] water.”

Bacon, 21, tells PEOPLE that Ledecky has inspired her since she was 10 when she watched the 2012 Olympics. There, Ledecky won her first Olympic gold medal at age 15.

<p>Courtesy of Katie Ledecky</p> Katie Ledecky and Phoebe Bacon

Courtesy of Katie Ledecky

Katie Ledecky and Phoebe Bacon

“All I wanted to do was be like her,” says the Chevy Chase, Maryland native.

There’s plenty to be inspired by: Ledecky’s seven Olympic gold medals and twenty-one World Championship gold medals are the most ever won by a female swimmer.

<p>Gregory Shamus/Getty</p> Katie Ledecky of the United States during day two of the FINA Swimming World Cup at the Pan Am Sports Centre on October 28, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario.

Gregory Shamus/Getty

Katie Ledecky of the United States during day two of the FINA Swimming World Cup at the Pan Am Sports Centre on October 28, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario.

“They look up to Katie because she’s that motherly figure; she’s been around forever,” Stone Ridge Swim Coach Bob Walker tells PEOPLE. “When you say she is the queen of swimming, certainly she’s a very high candidate to be that person.”

Bacon, a fifth-year student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, will swim the 200m backstroke at Trials, and says it’s comforting to know her Stone Ridge friends will be swimming too.

“It brings a sense of home back to the whole gauntlet that is Olympic Trials,” says Bacon.

Related: Katie Ledecky: 5 Things to Know About the Teen Olympic Swimming Champion

For her part, Ledecky is thrilled that Bacon and Gemmell developed into world class athletes.

“Katie swam very fast at her high school meets, breaking many school and pool records,” Ledecky’s mother Mary Gen tells PEOPLE. “Both Phoebe and Erin came along and broke nearly all of those records. Katie is very proud of that fact.”

Coming Back Home

Walker has coached Ledecky, Bacon and Gemmell and will attend the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis.

“Could we end up with three [qualifying for the Olympics]? Possibly,” Walker says. “We’ll hopefully have a few of our Stone Ridge girls be a part of that.”

Bacon says she hopes to visit Stone Ridge with Ledecky and Gemmell after the Olympic Trials and the Paris Olympics. Having several swimmers in the trials and potentially on the U.S. Swim Team is “probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a high school,” she says. “It’s got to be relatively rare and very special.”

<p>Courtesy of Bruce Gemmell</p> Erin Gemmell and Katie Ledecky at 2023 World Aquatics Championships

Courtesy of Bruce Gemmell

Erin Gemmell and Katie Ledecky at 2023 World Aquatics Championships

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Back at Stone Ridge, a cardboard cutout of Ledecky and Bacon, taken at the 2021 Olympic Trials with both swimmers wearing Stone Ridge Swim Team T-shirts, attends home and away swim meets to bring their alma mater good luck. If any alumni compete in the Paris Olympics, school officials plan to schedule viewing parties and pep rallies to send the good luck back to them.

“We all go gaga for them,” says Catherine Karrels, head of school for Stone Ridge. “We couldn’t ask for better representatives, not only for our school but for our country.”

To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.com. Watch the Paris Olympics and Paralympics, beginning July 26, on NBC and Peacock.

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