When 15-year-old Katie Grimes finished third in the 1,500-meter freestyle at U.S. Olympic swimming trials on Wednesday, less than a second away from a teenage trip to Tokyo, a slightly more famous Katie approached her.
“You’re the future,” Katie Ledecky, the greatest female swimmer ever, told Grimes, an up-and-comer without a Wikipedia page.
Two days later, Ledecky looked up at a scoreboard in Omaha, Nebraska. She’d just won the 800 at trials going away. She squinted into the lights for the name of the teammate who’d be joining her at the Olympics. And when she saw it, she beamed.
She looked over toward Lane 8, and beamed even brighter.
Grimes, who’d finished eighth in prelims after beating her own personal best time by almost six seconds, slashed another 11 seconds off it in the final to qualify in second place, 0.15 seconds ahead of Olympic veteran Haley Anderson in third.
Ledecky swam over lane lines toward her. Grimes was overcome with an emotional concoction of exhaustion, disbelief and joy. Ledecky grasped her hand and pulled it skyward.
And this time, Ledecky said, she offered a new proclamation: “You’re the now.”
Grimes became the youngest American swimmer to qualify for the Olympics since — you guessed it — Ledecky in 2012. As Ledecky strode toward an NBC microphone for a post-race interview, Grimes beelined for her family. Ledecky told NBC’s Michele Tafoya to let Grimes savor the moment. Grimes’ parents pulled her in from the front row and hugged her tight.
“I’m so proud of you!” her mom exclaimed.
With tens of thousands of eyes on her, and Ledecky joining the ovation, the 15-year-old then re-found Ledecky, whose welcoming arm slid around her shoulder for another hug.
“I think Katie Squared is gonna crush it in Tokyo,” Ledecky said.
Grimes grinned. When asked to describe her emotions, she shrugged and turned a left palm to the ceiling. “I don’t even know,” she said, as innocently as could be, as she brought that palm to her forehead. “Just speechless.”
Then there was another pat on the back from Ledecky, and the ritualistic signing of the drum that everybody who’s qualified this week has scribbled on. Ledecky’s name is on there. So are the likes of Lilly King, Caeleb Dressel, and a host of Olympic champs. There are other teens, but none as young as Grimes.
“It’s all just crazy,” she said later, still in shock.
Sitting next to Ledecky at a post-race news conference, Grimes said: “I used to think it was cool we had the same first name. And now we’re on the team together.”
Grimes was born in 2006, and a year ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck a couple months after her 14th birthday, few casual swimming fans had heard of the distance freestyler who trains in Nevada. Heck, heading into trials this week, she was a relative unknown.
But she exploded on Tuesday in 1,500 prelims, knocking 13 seconds off her previous best time in that event. She improved again a day later, and very nearly stunned Omaha. Three nights later, she did.
Her trajectory, in a way, is similar to that of Ledecky, who was two months younger than Grimes currently is when she came out of nowhere and qualified for London nine years ago. Ledecky stunned U.S. trials, then the world that summer, winning gold in the 800 at the Olympics.
Nine years later, Ledecky, in a way, is the biggest reason Grimes’ path to stardom might have to diverge ever so slightly. Ledecky has since won four more Olympic golds and 15 world championships. She’s the overwhelming favorite in the 800 and 1,500 in Tokyo. Grimes’ rapid improvement probably won’t be rapid enough to catch Ledecky next month. (She was 5.74 seconds behind Ledecky on Saturday.)
Perhaps someday, there will be a passing of the torch. For now, a radiant smile, a few pictures with the GOAT and a place in the spotlight alongside her will do just fine.
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