The Process and Psyche Carrying Katie Grimes to International Medals

Katie Grimes -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The Process and Psyche Carrying Katie Grimes to International Medals

That horrible, sinking feeling was all too familiar for Katie Grimes. She was racing the 800 freestyle at the U.S. International Team Trials, seeking a trip to the World Championships in the event in which she pulled off a stunner 10 months earlier to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team as a 15-year-old. One month after her Trials surprise, Grimes had finished fourth in the Olympic final, just one second away from the Olympic podium.

Immediately upon qualifying for the Tokyo Games, Grimes became a fan-favorite in the United States, her potential seemingly limitless. The parallels to Katie Ledecky were striking: both had initially qualified for the Olympic team in the 800 free as 15-year-olds, and her London 2012 gold medal had propelled Ledecky into a decade of distance dominance. Meanwhile, Grimes posted swims during the post-Olympic season that suggested another big jump in 2022.

However, Grimes was now falling behind in the 800 free final at the U.S. International Team Trials, a top-two finish a requirement if she wanted to follow up her Olympic success in the event at the World Championships. As expected, Ledecky quickly opened up a big lead, but veteran Leah Smith followed, and by the halfway point, the teenager was almost three second adrift of second place. In the end, Grimes touched fourth as training partner Bella Sims finished hard to take third. Grimes was five seconds off her best time.

Immediately, Grimes flashed back to the U.S. Olympic Trials one year earlier, when she had hoped to qualify for the 400 IM final on the opening day of the meet before falling 2.5 seconds short — and almost three seconds off her best time.

“After that first 800, it was kind of déjà vu from Trials,” Grimes said. “I almost got back into that rabbit hole of, ‘Oh no, I’m not prepared. Something’s wrong.’ But I learned from my mistakes, and instead I just focused on the next race and focused on recovering and being prepared for the rest of the week.”


Katie Grimes (left) with Katie Ledecky and Lani Pallister after the 1500 freestyle final at the World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

And over the course of that week, Grimes stayed the course and pulled through, getting herself onto the World Championships team in two different events, neither of them a huge surprise but important swims nonetheless. Just as quickly as the result in the 800 free knocked her off that prescribed course, her 400 IM and 1500 free brought her back into the spotlight — and less than two months later, she would own a pair of World Championships silver medals to show for it.

In the 1500 free final at Worlds, Grimes got into a silver-medal dual with Australia’s Lani Pallister, and after taking over the second-place spot 22 lengths in, the American quickly distanced herself from the Aussie to touch in 15:44.89 and make it a U.S. 1-2 finish with Ledecky.

Five days later, Grimes went head-to-head with Canadian teenager Summer McIntosh, who had already won gold in the 200 butterfly and silver in the 400 free in Budapest. Grimes, who dropped five seconds from her lifetime best in the event just to qualify for Worlds, lobbed off three more as she never backed down from McIntosh’s challenge, even closing the gap slightly on the freestyle leg. Grimes posted a mark of 4:32.67 in another medal-worthy effort.

“That was my first time medaling at an international event, and so that’s something I really wanted to get off my chest,” Grimes said. “I think that’s what was most important to me about that, just being able to make my mark on the big stage and knowing that I can handle that kind of pressure. Anytime I can compete for Team USA and especially being able to get two more medals, it was a huge honor for me, and it makes me excited for future competitions.”


In the not-too-distant past, Grimes remembers feeling starstruck as she traversed the deck at major competitions and encountered older swimmers who were already established international competitors. Now, her relationships with these former role models are personal, and these individua have become sounding boards. For instance, at the Olympics, NBC cameras captured Grimes and Ledecky performing a special handshake following the 800 free final.

“We’re friends out of the water, and they’re people I can go to for advice,” Grimes said. “Getting to reach out to them for advice has been so helpful, especially when it comes to college recruiting and not knowing what I want to do and not really knowing about certain colleges. It’s been super nice just being able to reach out to people who are in the sport or who have just stepped away. It’s nice to just get honest feedback from people that know swimming inside and out.”

As for the biggest competitions, Grimes has learned the most from being an observer, taking in everything around her to see what the best did and apply that learning to her own situations.

“I’ve learned not so much from people telling me but just by watching other people,” Grimes said. “You see some of those top competitors walking around. They’re just having a good time. They are not laser beam focused, but they’re laughing and having fun with their friends and talking and stuff like that. So that’s always nice to see. You have to have fun. Especially at a meet where it can get kind of stressful, it’s important to stay calm and have fun.”


Katie Grimes with Sandpipers coach Ron Aitken — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

This experience has helped Grimes refine herself into a world-class performer, but the magic to her success is an old-school sort plenty familiar to distance specialists of previous decades. Grimes swims with the Sandpipers of Nevada in Las Vegas alongside an elite group led by coach Ron Aitken. A usual week includes about 11 practices, including doubles every weekday, with . short course and long course workouts in almost-equal distribution plus weight training.

Grimes attributes that training to her national and international breakthroughs. Over the last two years, she has noticed a big improvement over her butterfly during longer IM practices, and she mentioned a set of three to five repeats of the 400 IM all-out as critical in her 400 IM becoming world-class within a very short period. Sure, these are the sets that swimmers typically despise, but Grimes avoids disagreements with Aitken whenever possible, and she is fully bought into his training.

“I think he knows what’s best for me when it comes to swimming, event lineups, practices, whatever,” Grimes said. “Being coachable, that’s something that’s super important to me, and having a good relationship with your coach also is very important to me.”

Joining her in this marathon of training are fellow U.S. National Team members Sims and Claire Weinstein, both of whom were 800 free relay swimmers at Worlds (while Weinstein also raced individually), and Grimes finds the atmosphere to be competitive yet constructive, even though all three swimmers are freestyle specialists often competing for the same spots on international teams.

“It’s kind of crazy how we all want the same thing,” Grimes said. “We’re all coming and training every day because we all have the same end goal. At times, it can make for a really competitive atmosphere, but I think that’s something that we all benefit from, being able to race every day and going into practice knowing, ‘OK, I know this person isn’t just going to let me beat them, and I’m not going to give up in any sort of way.’ It can get down to a dogfight in practice, but I think that’s super beneficial for all of us, and it does make it all better.”


Her last results from 2022 and her first in 2023 indicate that Grimes is on the precipice of another leap forward this year. At U.S. Junior Nationals in December, Grimes moved into the top-five all-time in three short course yards events: the 500 free (4:29.53), 400 IM (3:57.02) and 1650 free (15:26.17). All of those swims marked lifetime-best efforts by more than three seconds (the mile by 8.5 seconds) from times established one year earlier, and all beat the winning times from the NCAA Championships last season, all from a swimmer with one more full year before joining the college ranks.

Beyond the numbers on the scoreboard, Grimes is a process-oriented swimmer. She calls consistency and strength in training her primary focus this year, so Grimes was pleased to see improvement with turns and underwaters, one of her perceived weaker areas, at Juniors. “Sometimes I watch my turns, and I just cringe because they’re so elongated,” she said. “So that’s been something that I’ve been focusing on a bit more in practice, and I think that showed a little bit.”


Katie Grimes — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Grimes and the Sandpipers competed earlier in January at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Knoxville, and she scored wins in the 800 free and 400 IM, needing every bit of her early lead in the medley to hold off a charging Ledecky by 0.17. “That was my first time ever racing her in that event, so that was pretty exciting,” Grimes said. “It’s usually the opposite where I’m chasing her, but this time, I got chased down a little bit, which was fun for a change.”

She is working toward U.S. Nationals in late June, a meet which will serve as the qualification for the World Championships one month later, and the focus remains on the middle-distance and distance races along with the 400 IM.

Grimes might throw in some occasional 200 fly or 200 backstroke, and the 200 free is “a race that I would like to obviously be better in” with the idea that she would be able to step in for an 800 free relay when needed. In words that will surely horrify sprinters everywhere, Grimes said the 200 free “does feel like a very long 50. When you’re a distance swimmer, it’s a pretty long sprint.”

While she was understandably reluctant to reveal any specific time goals for this year, Grimes is quickly trending toward a big year where additional global medals in the distance freestyle events and the 400 IM are well within reach. Grimes acknowledged that she was aware of the American record in the 400 IM, a 4:31.12 established by Katie Hoff back in 2008, and after great medley swimmers such as Elizabeth Beisel and Maya DiRado fell agonizingly short of that mark, it is definitely within reach for Grimes either this year or next.

As the Paris Olympics approach, the trope of “Katie vs. Katie” will undoubtedly pop up repeatedly, with Grimes forever connected to the seven-time Olympic champion thanks to their shared first name and common success at a young age. But Grimes, now 17, has such confidence in herself that such comparisons do not bother her.

“At the end of the day, I am not Katie Ledecky,” Grimes said. “I probably will never be. I’m me, and I’m trying to be the best that I can be. Who knows what that’s going to be? But that’s what I’m focusing on.”

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Paul Szuszkiewicz
Paul Szuszkiewicz
1 year ago

Then there is Open Water.

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