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Olympic future is now for 15-year-old Las Vegas swimmer

Updated July 21, 2021 - 12:38 pm

Like many teenagers, Katie Grimes recently hit a growth spurt that temporarily made her a little uncoordinated.

But for Grimes, a world-class swimmer, growing three inches about eight months ago to get to 5 feet 8 inches created more than typical teenage angst.

She would show up at the pool and get beaten by her Sandpipers of Nevada teammates, who began calling her Bambi because Grimes suddenly swam like a deer on ice.

“It was crushing her,” said Ron Aitken, coach of the Las Vegas-based Sandpipers club team.

He kept telling Grimes to be patient, and she knew she had no choice but to stick with the program. Over time, her coordination slowly caught up with her growth, and Grimes began to see improvement in the pool.

She was Bambi no longer.

But what she was wasn’t exactly clear until last month at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska. She finished third in the 1,500-meter freestyle behind Katie Ledecky and Sandpipers teammate Erica Sullivan. Then Grimes, swimming in the eighth lane, surprisingly came in second to Ledecky in the 800, beating out Sullivan and Bella Sims, another Sandpipers teammate.

Grimes, 15, became the youngest American swimmer to make the Olympic Games since Amanda Beard at 14 in 1996. She will swim in the 800 in Tokyo.

“I definitely learned patience because it took a lot of time to accept where I was and learn how to get out of the valley that I was in,” Grimes said. “But once I did, it turned out the way it was supposed to. The struggle really helped me feel the accomplishment when I was on top of the mountain.”

The future and the now

That Grimes finished second in the 800 at the Trials seemed to please no one else more than Ledecky — largely considered the greatest female swimmer of all time.

Ledecky’s eyes lit up when she looked at the scoreboard to see the Las Vegas native in the second spot.

It was after the 1,500 that Ledecky told Grimes, “You’re the future.” Then after the 800, Ledecky amended the statement, telling her, “You’re the now.”

“She’s the best there is, so for her to say that to me was very touching,” Grimes said. “Beyond that, she’s an incredible person. She’s so kind and welcoming. I’ve looked up to her for as long as I’ve been swimming. So for her to talk to me, it’s crazy.”

Ledecky then talked up Grimes on national TV.

Grimes’ mind was in such a haze that she doesn’t remember much about the conversation as the two stood side by side after that race. She was too starstruck in that moment.

“It’s kind of crazy to say that out loud,” Grimes said, “but she’s like my teammate now.”

A year early?

That Grimes is going to an Olympics is not shocking to those who closely follow local swimming. She showed that kind of potential at an early age.

That Grimes is going to these Olympics is another story.

“Last year would’ve been probably a bridge too far,” said Mike Polk, who coached the Sandpipers in the 1980s and coaches BCH Heatwave, a club team based in Henderson and Boulder City. “If the Trials were next year, everybody probably would’ve thought of her as someone who had a great shot. But actually stepping up this year was probably a little ahead of its time for her. But there are always a couple like that each year and she was the one that got it done.”

Grimes got it done in spectacular fashion.

In the race in which she qualified for the Olympics, the 800, Grimes dropped 22 seconds in just more than three months, clocking in with a time of 8 minutes and 20.36 seconds.

In the 1,500 at the Trials, she recorded a time of 15:52.12, a 28-second improvement over that same time span.

The joke on the team is her times dropped when Grimes began using Invisalign, a clear treatment in lieu of metal braces. She is more matter of fact when it comes to the actual reason, saying her training schedule put her in position to turn in those times.

Aitken devised a plan for her to peak at the Trials, but the athlete still had to follow through. Grimes did — twice.

“You’ll get it in prelims or you’ll get it in finals if they make it. But for her to take the drop she did in prelims and again in finals was a testament to her mental strength and her ability to step up to the moment,” Polk said.

“She did that in both the mile and the 800, where she eventually made the team. The girl was ready to go. … It’s one thing to be prepared to do that. It’s another thing to be able to do that at that moment.”

Trying to medal

Ledecky is the overwhelming favorite to win the 800, and really, there is little pressure on Grimes.

If she medals, it will continue the incredible journey she made as her coordination caught up to her growing body. If not, she wasn’t even expected to be at these Games anyway.

More will be expected in 2024 in Paris.

Grimes said she decided to enjoy the experience and make the most of representing her country.

As for being so young, Grimes sounded like an older person when she called age “just a number.” But for her, it’s the reality she has lived with in her young life.

“It feels like I’m the youngest in everything I do,” Grimes said. “I’m the youngest in our group, youngest in my family, now the youngest on the team. It’s kind of fitting, I guess. I just try to fit in, and the team is real young this year. I don’t think being the youngest is going to separate me from anything, so I think it’s going to be a great time.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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