Katie Ledecky, Katie Grimes Qualify for Tokyo 800 Free in Historic, Emotional, Full-Circle Moment

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An emotional Katie Grimes waves to the crowd after finishing second to Katie Ledecky in the 800 free at Olympic Trials -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Katie Ledecky, Katie Grimes Qualify for Tokyo 800 Free in Historic, Emotional, Full-Circle Moment

The United States has produced legions of strong swimmers during the history of the Olympic Games, and no country has had more success in Olympic swimming. Each of those swimmers has qualified through the finish at the Olympic Trials. Now, Katie Ledecky has more victories at Trials (eight) than any other female swimmer in history.

And in her record-breaking win — an accomplishment that Ledecky admitted she had no idea about before the race — Ledecky found herself joined in qualifying for the Olympic team by a 15-year-old, a teenage girl in the exact same position Ledecky had been in when she won her first Trials swim in 2012. That’s because 15-year-old Katie Grimes stormed home to finish second, a shocking and unexpected moment that sparking an amazing emotional moment as teammates, competitors and family embraced her, a full-circle moment if there was one after Ledecky qualified for her first Olympic team in 2012 at age 15 in the same 800 free.

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Katie Ledecky on her way to winning the 800 free at Olympic Trials –Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

As Ledecky wrapped up a grueling series of events in Omaha, she Ledecky went out under her own world record pace for the first 150 meters, and although she could not nearly maintain that pace, she still was able to hold on for a win by almost six seconds. Ledecky recorded a time of 8:14.62, about a second slower than her world-leading effort of 8:13.64 but still quicker than the next-best performer, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, who swam an 8:15.57 last week. None of Ledecky’s swims have been record-caliber this week, but she has still managed to earn spots to defend all three of her individual gold medals from Rio and also aim for the first-ever gold medal in the 1500 free.

Ledecky won the 800 free and then the 200, 400 and 800 free in 2016. She has now won four events this week (200, 400, 800 and 1500 free), and the last win breaks a tie with Tracy Caulkins and Katie Hoff for the most career wins at Olympic Trials.

It was a fine swim,” Ledecky said. “I thought I would do better given how well my prelims swim felt. I have learned how to manage my own expectations and tried to take it one swim at a time and not compare myself to my past.”

However, the real battle came for second, with open water Olympian Haley Anderson in lane 2, 1500 free Olympian Erica Sullivan in lane 3, 16-year-old Bella Sims in lane 5, Ally McHugh in lane 6 and Grimes in lane 8.

Anderson pulled away from that group and was in second place for the majority of that race, but Grimes gradually ran her down. Still third at the last turn, Grimes accelerated and went past Anderson on the last 50. She touched in 8:20.36, just 0.15 ahead of Anderson at 8:20.51. Grimes, who swims for Sandpipers of Nevada, dropped almost six seconds from her best time to qualify for the final in eighth place, and she lopped off another 11 seconds in the final to earn herself a spot on her first Olympic team.

At the finish, the crowd erupted not for Ledecky, but for the teenager who just accomplished an Olympic dream that even she never saw coming. Immediately, her two Sandpipers teammates in the race, Sims and Sullivan, raced over to lane eight to congratulate and embrace her, and so did Ledecky, Anderson and the rest of the finalists in a touching moment. As the swimmers climbed out of the pool on the lane 9 side, Grimes walked over to her family waiting for her in the front row. Speaking the virtual mixed zone, Grimes was nearly speechless, still in shock at her accomplishment.

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Bella Sims and Erica Sullivan (left) and Haley Anderson (right) embrace Katie Grimes after Grimes finished second in the 800 free at Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“The first thing I saw was my teammates come over. I was in shock. I had no idea what was going on. It was fun. It was like a pool party. I was overwhelmed, overwhelmed by emotion. Just so thankful to be able to compete in a heat with those kind of girls and make the team. Just crazy,” Grimes said. On the moment with her family, she added, “They just know everything that has gone into that. They’re my parents. They’ve helped me with everything. It was pretty emotional.”

Grimes previously dropped an amazing 13 seconds from her best time in the 1500 free to qualify seventh for that final and then another 15 seconds in the final to blast her way from well behind to pass third-place Anderson and almost catch second-place Sullivan, falling less than a second behind at the finish. At 15, Grimes becomes the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic swim team since Ledecky herself qualified by winning the 800 free for her very first Trials victory back in 2012. And even Ledecky was in awe of Grimes’ magnificent performance.

I told Katie Grimes after her third place in the mile that she was the future,” Ledecky said. “Then I told her she is the NOW. That was incredible.”

Grimes also becomes the third Sandpipers swimmer to qualify for the team this week, following Sullivan’s second-place finish in the 1500 and Sims’ fifth-place finish in the 200 free. Sims mathematically clinched her spot on the team Saturday after Rhyan White and Ledecky each qualified for another event at the Games, opening up a spot for fifth-place finishers in the women’s 100 and 200 free to be added.

McHugh ended up fourth in 8:23.51, just 0.04 ahead of Sims (8:23.55). Sullivan ended up sixth in 8:24.02, and Kaersten Meitz (8:31.88) and Sierra Schmidt (8:39.51) also swam in the final.

Katie and Kat(i)e, Full Circle

Nine years ago, Ledecky was a 15-year-old in her first Olympic Trials inside the same Omaha arena. She had placed third in the 400 free, missing a spot in London in the event by less than a second. Five days later, Ledecky swam in a second final in the 800 free, and she went out fast, took the lead and never surrendered it. Ledecky won that race in 8:19.78, six seconds ahead of her personal-best time, and second place went to the top American distance swimmer of that era, Kate Ziegler. That was the first of Ledecky’s wins at the grueling Olympic Trials.

Now, after the swim where she made Trials history, Ledecky was the legendary veteran, sitting side-by-side at a press conference with another 15-year-old, Grimes.

“Nine years ago, it was Katie and Kate Ziegler, and now we’ve got another Katie and Katie. I don’t know what it is about Katies and freestyle swimming,” Ledecky joked. “(Grimes) had an incredible mile and got third, and her 800 split in her mile was faster than her prelims 800, so I knew she had something up her sleeve.”

Ledecky thought back to 2012 when a U.S. veteran — she could not remember who — encouraged her after finishing third in the 400 free despite the best time, just like she encouraged Grimes after the amazing 1500 three days earlier. “It’s kind of like déjà vu from the other side for me, and I can’t wait to see what Katie can accomplish not just this year but, no pressure, in your swimming career,” Ledecky said.

Ledecky, of course has her own swimming goals still to accomplish this year. The Trials accomplished its purpose, getting her back to a third Olympic Games with tickets to swim four individual events plus at least one relay. Perfection was never the goal this week, not while she looked ahead somewhat to the Olympics and was swimming a whopping 6000 meters of races. She will get back to training this week, make adjustments and be ready to go for her battles with Titmus in Tokyo.

“I’m very eager ot get back into training,” Ledecky said. “I know I need a really big block here. I think we know what the next steps are, and I’ll talk to (coach) Greg (Meehan) this week. But mission accomplished. It’s not easy to get thru the kind of yardage I did this week. It was good to do what I did this week and check the box and not get too caught up in times or anything, just keep moving forward.”

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Katie Grimes hugs her family after finishing second in the 800 free at Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

But this particular moment was unique and special on its own, outside of any long-term big picture. This was a chance for Ledecky to look in a magical mirror that took her back in time nine years. Ledecky pointed out that this Olympic team will feature an unusual abundance of young swimmers, and after being the youngest member of both the 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams at ages 15 and 19, respectively, Ledecky will be one of the oldest members of the 2021 team, now with a chance to lend a hand in mentorship to swimmers like Grimes.

Grimes said that in the leadup to her first Trials, she was geared up for a big swim in the 400 IM. “Everything in practice was lining up perfectly for the 400 IM. It was my first race of the meet, and I think my nerves got to me, and I just blew it.”

Grimes entered seeded 12th, with a personal best of 4:41.39 that would have ended up qualifying for the final, but she ended up swimming five seconds slower and finishing 16th. In the next 48 hours, she refocused, managed to drop her expectations and swim free of the burden of expectations — and dropping almost half a minute between her two races. Still, even after that mile, it was a far stretch to think Grimes would be the swimmer who joined Ledecky on the Olympic team in the 800. Her teammates, Sullivan and Sims, were each much more popular picks than the 15-year-old who was little known before her mile.

Back in 2012, when Ledecky was in her shoes, Grimes was six years old, a realization that caused Ledecky to laugh in amazement. One month after those Trials, Ledecky would shock the world and British hometown favorite Rebecca Adlington to capture gold in the 800 free in Rio, and as for Grimes, ” Of course I was aware of it. Who wasn’t? I don’t remember watching the 2012 Olympics, but I definitely went back and watched it,” she said.

“Now, I get to do it with her. I’m sure it’s crazy,” Grimes said.

“It is,” Ledecky responded.

Results

  1. Katie Ledecky 8:14.62
  2. Katie Grimes 8:20.36
  3. Haley Anderson 8:20.51
  4. Ally McHugh 8:23.51
  5. Bella Sims 8:23.55
  6. Erica Sullivan 8:24.02
  7. Kaersten Meitz 8:31.88
  8. Sierra Schmidt 8:39.51

4 comments

  1. Are Conn

    That was a great race. I’d love to know the kind of training/training progression that gets a 15 year old to the Olympics.