Nine years ago, a then-15-year-old Katie Ledecky stunned the swimming world when she won the 800-meter freestyle race at the U.S. Olympic trials, then followed it up with Olympic gold in London. The upset win was a star-making performance, one that hinted at Ledecky’s dominance of the event over the next decade. She owns the 24 fastest 800 free times in history, so it was no surprise that she cruised through the U.S. Olympic trials and solidified herself as the easy favorite in Tokyo. However, that 800-meter race did hold one surprise: the second-place qualification of 15-year-old Katie Grimes, who is the youngest American at the Tokyo Olympics and has an outside chance at earning a medal in the event starting Thursday.
Grimes is the youngest American Olympian swimmer since Amanda Beard in 1996. Before she surprised everyone in the 800, she nearly made it onto the team in the 1500-meter race. Eventual Olympic silver medalist Erica Sullivan beat Grimes by less than a second to qualify, and Ledecky took notice of her fellow Katie’s impressive racing. “You’re the future,” Ledecky told Grimes at the presser. “That was an incredible time.”
Ledecky’s prediction took only three days to come true. After trailing Sullivan, Olympic silver medalist Haley Anderson, and Bella Sims (Grimes’s club teammate) for most of the race, Grimes charged through the last 100 meters and out-touched Sullivan by 0.15 of a second to earn her spot. Ledecky quickly adjusted her timeline, telling Grimes after the race, “Heck yeah, I mean you’re the now. You’re the present.”
Grimes joins Ledecky in the vaunted lineage of American distance-swimming Katies. Ledecky qualified ahead of Kate Ziegler in 2012, and Ziegler was joined by Katie Hoff in the 800 at Beijing. “Nine years ago, it was Katie and Kate, Kate Ziegler,” Ledecky said at trials. “And we’ve got another Katie and Katie. So I don’t know what it is about Katies and freestyle swimming.” (Slovenia’s Katja Fain will also compete in the 800 free in Tokyo.)
Grimes is one of handful of Olympians who benefitted immensely from the decision to push the Games back to 2021, as she went through a three-inch growth spurt eight months ago that briefly scrambled her coordination in the pool. Her stroke was so desynchronized that her teammates reportedly called her Bambi because she swam “like a deer on ice.” Local coaches spoke to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and acknowledged that while Grimes had the profile of a future Olympian, she seemed more likely to debut in Paris, until the delay. “Last year would’ve been probably a bridge too far,” former Sandpipers of Nevada coach Mike Polk said.
Once Grimes reoriented her stroke, she began breaking personal bests. Her 8:20:36 at trials was 11 seconds faster than her previous fastest time, and she lowered her 1500-meter time by 28 seconds in her attempt to qualify for that event. It’s not hard to imagine her lowering it further, and it wouldn’t take much of an improvement to vault her into medal contention. Grimes’s 8:20:36 is the fifth-fastest 800-meter time of the 2020-21 season, and eighth-fastest overall among her Tokyo competitors.
Most of her competitors have personal bests around the 8:15 mark, and given how dramatically she improved at the trials, a five-second improvement in her Olympic debut isn’t out of the question. After all, Ledecky improved her 2012 trials-winning time by almost exactly five seconds to win gold. Still, the 800-meter field is an impressive one, with both members of the Chinese and Australian teams posting strong times this year. But the fastest 800-meter free time of the Olympic cycle still belongs, of course, to the greatest Katie of them all.