Bella Sims Building on International Success in Pursuit of Second Olympics

bella sims
Bella Sims -- Photo Courtesy: Speedo

Bella Sims Building on International Success in Pursuit of Second Olympics

In the first three years of her international swimming career, Bella Sims has raised her level of performance at each critical juncture. In that span, Sims has developed into a dependable member of the U.S. women’s relay corps, showed versatility across numerous strokes and distances, broken world junior records and moved across the country to begin her collegiate swimming career. Most recently, she signed an NIL deal with one of the most popular swimming brands in the world, Speedo.

All this on a path that started as a relatively-unknown 16-year-old in an outside lane in an Olympic Trials final.

Sims surely would not have been in that position if the Olympics had been held in 2020, as originally scheduled prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the world shut down in March 2020 to prevent the spread of the disease, Sims realized the opportunity in front of her and took advantage. She and Ron Aitken, her coach at the Sandpipers of Nevada, chose to zero in on a new event, the 200 freestyle.

“Going into Olympic Trials, I was kind of still figuring out how to swim it,” Sims said. “I swam prelims, and I was like, ‘That was not fast enough. We’re not making semifinals. Next event, let’s go.’ And then I ended up making it in 10th, and I was like, ‘There is no way.’”

Sims entered Trials with a best time of 1:59.93 before improving to 1:59.16 in the morning heats. That evening, she crushed her best time with a mark of 1:58.00, and that turned out to be enough to book lane one for the final.

“And it was like, ‘I only have to move up one spot in order to make the team,’” Sims said. And in a finals race featuring the two previous Olympic champions in the event, Katie Ledecky and Allison Schmitt, Sims placed fifth with another best time of 1:57.53, securing her spot as a relay alternate on the Tokyo Olympic team. “It was such a surreal moment in my life,” she said.

At the Olympics, Sims ended up with a silver medal by virtue of her prelims swim on the U.S. women’s 800 free relay. In the leadup to her lone race at the Games, Sims felt the tension of preparing for the biggest moment of her life, but it was not until she had fully digested the Olympic experience and gained more comfort and familiarity with international competition that she would be able to perfect her own method for handling those situations.

“I remember all the veterans being like, ‘Yes, you’re at the Olympics. Yes, it’s the biggest meet ever. But don’t put too much pressure on yourself because it’s supposed to be fun. If you put too much pressure on yourself, it’s not going to be fun, and you’re just going to look back with regret,” Sims said. “I went to Worlds the next year, and I finally understood what they were saying.”

America’s 200 Freestyler

Finding success in relays requires a slightly different formula than for individual events. Plenty of accomplished swimmers perform fine on relays, perhaps matching their times from swims on their own, but others thrive like they never could in individual events under the unique circumstances of a relay.

Think about American Jason Lezak, a clutch relay performer for his entire career but best known for his 46.06 100 freestyle split to come from behind and stun France at the 2008 Olympics. While swimming on his own, Lezak would never come within one-and-a-half seconds of that historic split. Australian Cate Campbell is another such swimmer, having never broken 52 in the flat-start 100 free but with four relay splits of 51.1 or better, including a 50.93 that is the fastest in history.


Bella Sims (left) with Katie Ledecky & Claire Weinstein at U.S. Nationals — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

At the 2022 World Championships, the United States unexpectedly found another of those swimmers when Sims split 1:55.91, more than a second-and-a-half under her best time, anchoring the prelims 800 free relay squad. In a race where the U.S. was not favored to win gold, the coaches gave Sims the nod to anchor the relay in finals.

“Finding out I was going to be the anchor, I was just like, ‘There is no way that Katie Ledecky is in this relay and you’re telling me I’m the anchor? That’s insane,’” Sims said.

Ledecky was assigned the third leg of the relay, hoping to give the Americans a lead, and Sims would be tasked with holding off Australia’s Mollie O’Callaghan, the silver medalist in the individual 200 free one day earlier. Indeed, Sims dove in with a 1.07-second lead — and she extended it. Blasting out the first 100 meters, Sims turned in 54.59, around her best time in the 100 freestyle at the time. Her 1:54.60 split, a full 1.3 seconds quicker than her already-groundbreaking morning swim, had given her team gold in American-record time.

Not even the coaches or the most optimistic of analysts expected Sims to swim a 1:54 that night in Budapest. “I didn’t think I could do that either,” Sims said.

One year later, back on the global stage at the 2023 Worlds in Fukuoka, Japan, Sims had added individual racing duties to her lineup for the first time. She qualified for the finals in both the 400 free and 200 free, as the only U.S. swimmer in the four-lap race, and she swam as fast as 1:55.45 in the 200. But after what happened one year earlier, everyone knew Sims would have a little something extra for the 800 free relay, and indeed, Sims split 1:54.64.

“Since it’s a relay, obviously you have the pressure, but since I have everybody in the ready room with me, I feel more comfortable,” Sims said. “The adrenaline that relays give you is something else.”

Multi-Skilled Speedo Star

For all of her international success in freestyle, let’s not forget that Sims is skilled in other strokes as well, particularly in short course. In a rare appearance in short course meters at a World Cup meet in Indianapolis in late 2022, Sims set world junior records in the 200 free and 100 backstroke in back-to-back races, beating the likes of Summer McIntosh in the 200 free and then a who’s who of short course backstroke specialists in the 100 back.

As for short course yards, Sims arrived in Gainesville, Fla., last August for her freshman campaign with the Gators already ranking among the top-10 performers in history in five different events (out of the 13 individual races contested at the NCAA Championships). Sims’ best time in the 500-yard free is 4:28.64, a whopping eight seconds quicker than the winning time from last year’s national championships. Her times in the 400 IM (3:56.59) and 200 free (1:40.78) are both ahead of the 2023 winning times while her 200 back best time (1:48.32) is quicker than any returning performer swam last season.

Bella Sims — Photo Courtesy: Speedo

The Gators team placed ninth at last year’s national meet, but with the addition of Sims and transfer swimmer Isabel Ivey, a push for the top-five is not out of the question, and aside from sisters Alex Walsh and Gretchen Walsh at the University of Virginia, Sims could establish herself as the most valuable swimmer in the country this college season.

And at some point in the future, Sims might pursue a non-freestyle event for international competition, with the 200 butterfly a leading candidate. “I’ve always wanted to swim the 200 fly at one of those meets, but I haven’t gotten a chance because it was the same day as the 100 free or 800 free,” Sims said. “I love fly. It’s such an underrated stroke.”

All this to say that Sims is more than your typical mid-distance freestyle specialist. That versatility and ability to perform in big moments has made Sims a popular swimmer for perspective sponsors, and a recent rule change that allowed college swimmers to profit off their name, image and likeness paved the way for Sims to pursue these opportunities.

Last week, Sims secured her most significant deal yet, with well-known swimwear manufacturer Speedo announcing a partnership with the Las Vegas-native.

“I was talking to a few brands, but Speedo kind of stuck out to me,” Sims said. “It’s always been that brand for swimming. I was talking to their people. Their energy is always the best. They give off the best vibes. They’ve always stuck out to me, and the people who are on Team Speedo are fast. It kind of spoke to me.

She added that she does not take the opportunity for granted when so many earlier stars, including Ledecky, gave up significant money to remain eligible for NCAA competition. “I feel like it’s cool now that you can do this because then you can take advantage of the education part because swim isn’t everything,” she said. “There’s always going to be a life after swimming, so taking advantage of the education part is really important.”

Teenage Veteran Seeking Second Olympics

Sims will not turn 19 until May, and less than one month later, she will try to become a rare teenager to be a two-time Olympian, an opportunity largely possible because of the delay of the Tokyo Games. In fact, one of Sims’ Sandpipers teammates, Katie Grimes, became a two-time Olympian at age 17 when she qualified to represent the U.S. in the 10-kilometer open water swim in Paris.

Sims has already had to take on a veteran role, particularly on the U.S. women’s 800 free relay, where her three consecutive years as part of the prelims and/or finals roster makes her the team’s second-longest-tenured member behind Ledecky. Last July in Fukuoka, Sims took one of the squad’s rookies under her wing when she unexpectedly earned a position on the finals roster.

Athletes of Team United States of America prepare to compete in the 4x200m Freestyle Relay Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 27th, 2023, erin gemmell, bella sims, katie ledecky, alex shackell

Bella Sims (second from left) with Alex Shackell (left) plus Katie Ledecky and Erin Gemmell before the women’s 800 freestyle relay at the World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Sims was roommates in Fukuoka with 16-year-old Alex Shackell, who dropped more than five seconds from her 200 free best time to qualify for the Worlds team on the 800 free relay. Shackell a spot on the finals quartet with an impressive prelims swim, just like Sims had one year earlier, and with the American women considered heavy underdogs to Australia, the team’s coaches decided on Shackell to anchor.

After Shackell learned of the decision, she turned to Sims for guidance, and the duo held hands as they walked out for the medal race. Sims leaned on what she had gotten from American veterans during her first international appearance.

“I could tell that she was a little nervous,” Sims said. “She was asking me for advice, and at some point, I’m pretty sure I was not helpful at all. I was probably making the situation worse. But sometimes you don’t know how to tend to people’s things. I think at the end of the day, I was like, ‘You just need to have fun with it. You can’t compare yourself to other people because their journeys are different than yours. We’re just going to do our best, and that’s all we can do.’”

The Americans ended up with silver that night as Australia pulled away to win by almost four seconds, but with Ledecky as the only non-teenager on that squad, the Americans have reason to be optimistic for a much closer race at the Paris Olympics, a fact that Sims admits fires her up.

“Oh, for sure,” Sims said. “Australia’s gotta watch out.”

Her journey toward a potential second Games will look plenty different than her first as she has entered college and begun taking classes after several years of homeschooling. And of course, there’s no global pandemic around which to navigate.

Sims admitted that the cross-country move and adjustment to college life in Gainesville prompted some second-guessing. After all her success at Sandpipers, should she have stayed home one more year to zero-in on qualifying for Paris? But with time, especially as she met with her new coaches at Florida and acknowledged the fact she had signed up for too many course units in her first semester, Sims adapted.

“Later on last semester, I came to the realization that I should stop stressing and I should trust the process and everything’s going to turn out the way that it’s supposed to,” she said. “Training has been really good. I’m excited for this championship season.”

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