When Katie Ledecky qualified for the 800-meter freestyle for the U.S. Olympic Team back in 2012, it stunned the nation.
She was one of the youngest swimmers ever to earn a spot on the team and she accomplished the feat by finishing ahead of Kate Zielger, who broke world records in distance freestyle events and had been a world champion swimming in the 800 freestyle just five years earlier.
Now, America has a new up-and-coming distance freestyle swimmer to keep an eye out for. In this year’s qualifiers, 15-year-old Katie Grimes, a native of Las Vegas, Nevada, swam a time of 8:20.36 in the 800 freestyle to finish second behind Ledecky (8:14.62) to earn the second spot in the event for the U.S., becoming the youngest American swimmer since Amanda Beard in 1996.
In the press conference following the qualifying race, Ledecky shared that after the 1500 freestyle, she told Grimes that the young swimmer looked like the future in the event. That message changed after the 800.
“I told her after the mile, I was like, ‘You’re the future. That was an incredible time,’” Ledecky said, according to the video from SwimSwam. “And when I got over to her [after the 800], I told her, ‘Heck yeah I mean you’re the now. You’re the present.’”
Here’s what you need to know about the next young star on the U.S. swimming team.
Parallels to Ledecky
A 15-year-old swimmer named Katie qualifies for a distance freestyle event in the Olympics? Yeah, there’s going to be some obvious comparisons made.
Let’s get the most obvious out of the way: the name. Ledecky even mentioned in her post-race press conference that there must be something with the name that leads to success in the race.
“Nine years ago, it was Katie and Kate, Kate Ziegler. And we’ve got another Katie and Katie. So I don’t know what it is about Katie’s and freestyle swimming,” Ledecky said.
Even after getting out of the pool, Ledecky developed a new nickname for the distance swimming pair.
“I think Katie squared is going to crush it in Tokyo,” Ledecky told NBC after the race.
But we’ll go further than just five letters. At the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, Ledecky swam an 8:19.78 in the 800 freestyle to qualify for the Olympics. Grimes’ time this year? 8:20.36. Yeah, that’s pretty close.
Grimes’ time also isn’t that far off from Ledecky’s American long-course meter record in the 800 freestyle for the 15-16 age group range. According to USA Swimming, the record is held by Ledecky at 8:13.86, set back in 2013.
Back in 2012, Ledecky went on to win Olympic gold in the 800 freestyle at the Olympics, which would be a tall task for Grimes as it would require beating the world record holder in the event — that would be Ledecky. Winning a medal, however, does not seem out of the question. Grimes’ entry time of 8:20.36 is the seventh-best in the field and she’s already proven that she can drop some significant time as she took off 11 seconds from her personal best time in the finals to reach the Olympics in the first place.
Still only 15 years old, however, Grimes has plenty of time to earn some medals. She figures to be back in the picture for the 2024 Paris Olympics, which astonishingly be held the summer following her high school graduation. Two trips to the Olympics before reaching college? That wouldn’t be too bad.
Extra year beneficial for Grimes
Swimmers competing in the Olympics would likely say that the extra year of waiting until the Olympics was not to their benefit.
That would certainly not be the case for Grimes.
According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Grimes hit a growth spurt a few months ago that slowed her down and led to her teammates calling her “Bambi” as she was a bit uncoordinated. It took her time before she was able to catch up with her growth spurt, which led to some disappointment as she wasn’t swimming as well as she had hoped.
“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 in the Review-Journal article. “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.”
Mike Polk, a former Sandpipers coach, told the Review-Journal that it would have been difficult for her to make the team a year ago, but that if the trials were held in 2022, she would have been viewed as having a decent shot at making it.
“But actually stepping up this year was probably a little ahead of its time for her,” Polk said. “But there are always a couple like that each year and she was the one that got it done.”
Sandpipers’ Olympic dominance
Grimes arrives in Tokyo surrounded by plenty of familiar faces.
She competes for the Sandpipers of Nevada, a swimming club that produced a total of five U.S. Olympic Team members. Along with Grimes, Erica Sullivan (women’s 1500 freestyle) Bella Sims (women’s 4×200 freestyle relay), Bowe Becker (men’s 4×100 freestyle relay) and Blake Pieroni (men’s 4×100 freestyle relay) all will make the trip to Tokyo to compete in the games, according to SwimSwam.
Grimes was even pitted against some of her teammates during the trials. She finished third in the 1500 freestyle behind Ledecky and Sullivan, but finished ahead of Sullivan and Sims in the 800 freestyle to earn her spot.
“The Sandpipers team has a collection of talented swimmers and when we all come together, the swimmers recognize the diversity in each group and how the combination of each swimmer’s ability, effort and attitude creates high performance. It’s great to witness the friendships and support the swimmers give to each other,” Sandpipers head coach Ron Aitken told SwimSwam.