Bella Sims Preparing For Huge Role for Florida in First College Championship Season; SECs Up First

Bella Sims -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Bella Sims Preparing For Huge Role in First College Championship Season 

She had qualified for an Olympic team, competed in individual finals at major international competitions and led the United States to relay medals. But her first SEC and NCAA Championships will be a totally new experience for Bella Sims, who will be counted on as the go-to swimmer for a team with big hopes. The University of Florida Gators are aiming this week to defend their conference title from last year and then, in just over a month, improve upon last year’s ninth-place finish at the national level.

Good thing that Sims is basically a perfect swimmer for the college level. For international competition, Sims has been just a freestyler to this point, but in short course yards, she began her first college season 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.

Amid the transition to the college level, Sims has yet to approach any of her best times since arriving at Florida, but entering championship season, she does rank first in the country in the 500 free, where her season-best mark of 4:32.53 is four seconds clear of the 2023 NCAA-title-winning time, and top-five in both backstroke events as well as the 400 IM.

And as with most high-level recruits, she will assume significant relay responsibilities, racing events as short as 50 yards that require a much different energy output from the 500 free and 400 IM. The 18-year-old Las Vegas-native is expected to swim the backstroke leg for both of the Gators’ medley relays while also racing the 400 and 800 free relays, skipping only the 200 free relay.


Bella Sims — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Four relays plus three individual events in prelims and finals could equal 10 swims over three-and-a-half days, but the freshman is not intimidated by the busy workload.

“I feel like it’s nothing that I’ve not done before,” Sims said. “I’ve swum events, like, five seconds apart. I’m excited, though. This is an opportunity that some people don’t get to have, so I just want to take advantage and make the most of it.”

Her individual program of events at SECs and NCAAs will surely include the 500 free, and the 200 back seems likely as well. Claire Curzan, the 2023 national titlist, is sitting out this year’s collegiate action. Top backstrokers Phoebe Bacon and Isabelle Stadden have seen plenty of Sims at major meets, with Bacon and Sims making their senior-level international debuts together at the Tokyo Olympics. But the NCAA Championships will mark the first time they race head-to-head in a final with true stakes.

For the middle day at the conference and NCAA meets, Sims and Florida coach Anthony Nesty have a decision to make between the 400 IM and 200 free. At her best, Sims could probably win either race, but she would have to face off with two-time defending champion Alex Walsh in the medley while the 200 free field looks significantly improved this year, with Virginia’s Gretchen Walsh and USC’s Minna Abraham already clocking 1:41s while Indiana’s Anna Peplowski, Stanford’s Aurora Roghair and Texas’ Kelly Pash have all been 1:42-mid or better while swimmers like Tennessee’s Brooklyn Douthwright and Virginia’s Aimee Canny loom.

Florida has another top-notch 400 IM in Olympic silver medalist Emma Weyant, but the Gators would have Isabel Ivey in the 200 free, so it’s hard to determine which event would make more sense for Sims and her team. When she spoke with Swimming World last month, even Sims did not know what her plan would be.

“The other day, I asked Nesty what I was going to swim, and he was like, ‘You’re going to swim whatever we put you in, and you’re going to do it fast,’” Sims said. “I was like, ‘Heck yeah I am.’”

Like many of her rivals approaching college championship meets over the next several weeks, Sims has a split focus right now as she hopes to make a return trip to the Olympic Games, this time with a role in individual events (the 200 and 400-meter free) as well as her relay duties. But Sims is focused on going one meet at a time, handling the college campaign before turning her full attention to long course and the Olympic Trials.

“I’m definitely just trying to live in the moment and focus on what’s closest to me. I’m positive that the coaches have a plan, and I’m just here to go along with it, just trust the process because they know what they’re doing.

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