Bella Sims No Longer Overshadowed, Claiming Her Spot Among Country’s Top Swimmers

Bella Sims -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Bella Sims No Longer Overshadowed, Claiming Her Spot Among Country’s Top Swimmers

Less than one month after her 16th birthday, Bella Sims was an Olympian as she secured her spot on the U.S. team for Tokyo with an unexpected fifth-place finish in the 200 freestyle at Olympic Trials. By the end of the summer, Sims had an Olympic silver medal by virtue of swimming in prelims for the U.S. women’s 800 free relay team. But Sims was very much overshadowed, not only by the veteran American 200 free specialists but also by a pair of her own teammates.

Sims was one of three swimmers from the Sandpipers of Nevada to qualify for Tokyo under the watch of coach Ron Aitken. Erica Sullivan finished second behind Katie Ledecky in the 1500 free at Trials before capturing Olympic silver in the event while 15-year-old Katie Grimes came out of nowhere to qualify for the U.S. team in the 800 free. Grimes, who went on to finish fourth in the 800 free in Tokyo, got plenty of attention for sharing a name with all-time distance great Ledecky and qualifying for her first Olympic team at age 15, just like Ledecky had nine years earlier.

At the next major selection meet for the U.S., Sims again qualified for relay duty, but once again, she was the third-most prominent Sandpipers swimmer. Grimes qualified individually in the 400 IM and 1500 free, and Claire Weinstein, younger than both Sims and Grimes, had finished second in the 200 free final to qualify for an individual event at the World Championships. But it was at that global meet in Budapest where Sims got her first chance to really shine.


Bella Sims (left) and Claire Weinstein at the U.S. International Team Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Sims holds a lifetime-best mark of 1:57.53 in the 200 free, and she went 1:57.71 in placing fifth at April’s Trials. But at Worlds, she split 1:55.91 in prelims to earn her spot on the finals quartet, and in that big spot, she delivered. Legs by Weinstein and Leah Smith had the Americans in third place at the halfway point before Ledecky shot the Americans into the lead. She handed Sims an advantage of just over a second, but Australia had Mollie O’Callaghan, already the individual silver medalist in the 200 free, entering the water to anchor.

And Sims split 1:54.60 — yes, nearly three full seconds quicker than her flat start best time — to secure upset gold for the United States.

Maybe something flipped that night in Budapest or in the immediate leadup to Worlds. Whatever the reasons, Sims has been swimming like that confident, poised swimmer with 1:54 speed in the months since. She represented the U.S. at the Duel in the Pool and won a pair of events. A huge performance at the FINA World Cup in Indianapolis saw her break world junior records in the 200 free and 100 backstroke within the span of 12 minutes.

Sims edged out Summer McIntosh in the 200 free to secure the WJR before beating short course backstroke specialists Beata Nelson and Ingrid Wilm as well as multi-time world champion Kylie Masse in the 100 back. Before that World Cup, Sims had never shown signs of elite backstroking, but all the sudden, she threw her name into the most competitive stroke in the United States.

Now, after her performance last weekend at Winter Junior Nationals West in Austin, Texas, we are looking at one of the most complete swimmers in the country, one who would surely be on the short list for NCAA Swimmer of the Year if she were not a high school senior.

Sims now ranks in the top-10 in history in four different events in short course yards: third in the 500 free (4:28.64), tied for eighth in the 200 back (1:48.32), ninth in the 200 free (1:40.78) and 10th in the 200 fly (1:51.06). Her times in the freestyle events easily surpassed the winning marks from last year’s NCAA Championships, and her swims in the 200 back and 200 fly would have each been good enough for second place nationally.

University of Florida coach Anthony Nesty surely cannot wait to welcome Sims to Gainesville next fall, and the Gators will instantly deploy Sims as an ace swimmer capable of winning just about any event. She profiled as a mid-distance and distance freestyle specialist when she first committed to Florida, but she has backstroke and butterfly skills as well as legitimate sprint freestyle chops. Her leadoff leg on the Sandpipers’ NAG-record-setting 400 free relay was 47.16, which would have placed fifth in the individual 100 free at NCAAs last season.

From the standpoint of the U.S. team, Sims will surely enter the summer of 2023 expected to headline the American 800-meter free relay squad at the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, and maybe she will receive more anchor responsibilities after filling that role so ably in Budapest. An individual swim in the 200 free or 400 free is definitely within reach, and if her backstroke skills can translate to long course, maybe she joins the battle for international spots in the 100 and 200 back. The depth of the United States in those events is such that it requires international-medal-worthy times simply to finish in the top-two at a selection meet.

At the Tokyo Olympics and heading into the Budapest World Championships, Sims was a relay depth swimmer, her swimming not getting the attention it deserved thanks to the exploits of her training partners. Not anymore. Still only 17, Sims will finish 2022 recognized as one of the top women’s swimmers in the country.

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