Katie Grimes Redefines Endurance Swimming at U.S. Olympic Trials

The 18-year-old Grimes punched her ticket to her second Summer Games by managing several events in a breakneck 25-hour span in Indianapolis.
Katie Grimes waves to the crowd after winning the 400-meter individual medley final Monday during the third day of competition for the U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Katie Grimes waves to the crowd after winning the 400-meter individual medley final Monday during the third day of competition for the U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. / Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY

With a hand on a railing to steady her wobbly legs, Katie Grimes descended the stairs from the competition pool at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was 1:07 p.m. Tuesday. Grimes had just completed what might have been the most difficult 25 1/2 hours in U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials history. 

From late Monday morning to early Tuesday afternoon, the 18-year-old Grimes swam a total of 2,500 meters in competition. There were two rounds of the 400 individual medley, one 200 freestyle and one 1,500 free—a massive workload. Peppered in between those events, she swam thousands more meters warming up and warming down. There also was time in the cold pool, time in drug testing, time in the ready room, time consulting with her coach, time being interviewed on NBC, time with a medal around her neck—and no time to catch her breath.

The results: Grimes won the 400 IM to punch her indoor swimming ticket to the Paris Olympics. (She already had made the open-water team in the 10k.) Less than an hour after that grueling event, she finished last in the championship final in the 200 free. Then Tuesday, she qualified second in the 1,500, behind only Katie Ledecky. The final in that will be Wednesday night, which means she finally entered a restful window of more than 24 hours before the next brutal swim.

“It was fun,” she said of the Monday double. “But I would liked to have seen better results.”

“Fun” is an interesting way to describe that gauntlet. And almost every other swimmer on the planet would be fine with the results.

Being the American Olympic Trials champion in anything is a massive moment, and even making the eight-woman final in a second event on the same night was a considerable accomplishment. But Grimes didn’t get to be a two-time Olympian at age 18 by expecting anything less than greatness from herself at all times.

Her winning time of 4:35 flat in the 400 IM was about 2 1/2 seconds off her lifetime best. And she was never really a factor in the 200 free, which is probably too short a distance—and too soon on the heels of the 400—to suit her. But the fact that she even dared to try the double, while knowing the preliminaries of the mile were looming the next day, was a testament to ambition and extreme fitness.

Swimmer Katie Grimes
Grimes stands with her medal and flowers after winning the 400-meter individual medley final. / Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY

She already will be swimming an unprecedented Paris program with the 400 IM and open-water 10k, a combination that has never been done at the Olympic level. If she adds the mile and 800—maybe even a long-shot 200 backstroke bid—it will be an Olympic endurance test for the ages.

But that's how the Sandpipers of Nevada tend to roll. Coach Ron Aitken’s Las Vegas-based club team trains big yardage and makes big demands of its swimmers—many of them in the top training group are home-schooled, for instance, to facilitate the training schedule. The recent results speak for themselves: Grimes, Bella Sims and Erica Sullivan all made the 2021 Olympics; now Grimes will be joined in Paris by 17-year-old teammate Claire Weinstein, who made the team in the 200 freestyle Monday.

“My coach is a genius,” Grimes said of Aitken. “I kind of just trust him blindly, and he’s done a great job. I’ve been with Coach Ron since I was 13, so I’ve gotten used to how we do things.”

Here’s how Grimes did things on a manic Monday night in Lucas Oil Stadium:

8:05 p.m.: After qualifying in second place that morning in the 400 IM behind Emma Weyant, who won a silver medal in the event in Tokyo, Grimes stepped to the Lane 5 starting block with the Paris Olympic bid on the line. 

At the beep, Grimes was away quickly. An excellent butterflyer, she powered through that 100-meter leg in 1:00.69, the only one in the race who went under 1:02. She extended her lead with a 1:08.10 backstroke leg, opening up more than three seconds on the field.

Breastroke is the leg that can alter an IM more than any other, and it’s Grimes’s weakest link. She clocked 1:23.52 through that 100 meters, slipping to third behind Weyant and darkhorse Lilla Bognar. But as an elite freestyler and distance demon, Grimes came roaring back over the final 100 meters to edge Weyant for the win by half a second.

8:11: Grimes embraced Weyant in the pool, swam to the side and exited to a loud ovation from the massive Lucas Oil crowd. Two minutes later, she was being interviewed on NBC at poolside by Elizabeth Beisel, an Olympic medalist in that event. 

8:15: Grimes exited the pool deck, went down the stairs to the warmdown pool, and was embraced by a group of her Sandpiper teammates. Someone handed her a bottle of Coca-Cola to get a quick sugar injection before slipping into the warmdown pool to work out as much lactic acid as possible before the 200 free.

8:46: Dried off and dressed in her Sandpiper sweatsuit, Grimes rose up the elevating platform to the deck of Lucas Oil to receive her gold medal and a bouquet of flowers for winning the event. That was followed by an in-stadium interview with Kaitlin Sandeno. Swimming a 400 IM/200 free double is tough enough, but working in the pomp and ceremony that accompanies making the Olympic team considerably cut down on the warmdown time between events.

8:49: Grimes walked around the pool and delivered her medal and flowers to her family, accepting quick hugs. Then she jogged off the pool deck, back to the warmdown area.

8:51: Standing by one of the cold tubs, Grimes re-tied her hair bun, put on her swim cap, wrapped a towel around her neck, put on her parka and watched the women’s 100 breastroke on the big screen over the warmdown pool. 

8:55: Grimes went over her 200 free strategy with Aitken, then reported to the ready room to check in for the event.

9:04: With Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” thundering through the stadium, the 200 freestyle finalists were announced and walked out to their blocks. Grimes was in Lane 2 this time. After shucking her parka and shoes, she was ready to go again.

9:07: Fifty-six minutes after finishing a withering 400 IM, Grimes dove in for the 200 free. She did not crack the top six to earn a relay spot, but it was an Olympian effort doing the double in an hour’s time. “That was pretty challenging trying to manage it,” she said. But the night still was far from over.

9:36: Still wearing her competition suit, Grimes climbed out of a recovery tub and talked to Weinstein for a moment. Then it was time to head off for drug testing. After getting back to the hotel, she didn’t go to sleep until about 12:30 a.m., with the mile race staring at her the next day.

“I’m a little tired right now,” she acknowledged after the 1,500 meters had been swum in a time of 16 minutes, 10 seconds. “I knew that race was going to be a hard one coming off yesterday, but I have tonight off and tomorrow morning off, so I’m really looking forward to that.”


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Pat Forde

PAT FORDE

Pat Forde is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who covers college football and college basketball as well as the Olympics and horse racing. He cohosts the College Football Enquirer podcast and is a football analyst on the Big Ten Network. He previously worked for Yahoo Sports, ESPN and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Forde has won 28 Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest awards, has been published three times in the Best American Sports Writing book series, and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. A past president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and member of the Football Writers Association of America, he lives in Louisville with his wife. They have three children, all of whom were collegiate swimmers.