COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — With their 12-year-old daughter, Katie, swimming nearby, Shari and Christian Grimes stood on the pool deck talking to Sandpipers of Nevada coach Chris Barber. Christian had just been offered the deputy fire chief job in Logan, Utah, and the family was considering moving there from their home in Las Vegas.
Barber is a good listener with a calm head, Shari says, and the Grimes family trusts him. So she didn’t take his words that day lightly. Barber started by saying that Katie could move anywhere and earn a college swimming scholarship.
“But I’m telling you right now,” he continued, “there is something different about her. And if you leave her here, she will be an Olympian.”
Shortly after, Ron Aitken, the Sandpipers CEO who coaches the team’s top swimmers, heard what the family was considering. He reached out to make a pact: If they stayed in Nevada, he promised he’d remain with Sandpipers at least until Katie graduated high school.
The coaches’ responses were telling. Katie was a special talent with more potential than her parents had realized up to that point. So Shari and Christian listened. The family stayed put.
Five years later, Grimes is one of the most promising swimmers in the U.S. She already made Barber look prophetic, making the Olympics as a 15-year-old in 2021, and has since won three silver medals in pool events at the World Aquatics Championships. She’s also a world-class open-water swimmer and has already qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics in the 10-kilometer race after taking bronze at the 2023 world championships, making her the first American athlete to secure a spot in France.
“Knowing that I’m already going to Paris is a little bit comforting, but I still really want to make it in the pool,” said Grimes, now 17. “… I feel like I still have a lot to do.”
Grimes is never satisfied, her mom says. Shari believes there are times Katie needs to celebrate her accomplishments more than she does. But that unrelenting hunger is perhaps what continually propels the teenager to new heights.
Katie, who is homeschooled and the youngest of seven kids, spent a little over three weeks this fall at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Shari chaperoned for part of the trip, and she stopped by the pool every once in a while during practices. She found herself getting emotional seeing how hard her daughter and the other swimmers work and how much they sacrifice for a shot at their goals.
“But I also do believe that there is even bigger greatness inside her that hasn’t broken out yet, and I’m excited for that,” Shari said. “Because every time we show up somewhere, that girl literally amazes us with something totally out of the blue that we weren’t expecting.”
When Katie was around 3, a Sandpipers coach noticed her older brother Carter at the YMCA pool. Carter had been a gymnast until he grew too tall, and he looked good in the water, so the coach approached Shari to ask if the family would be interested in joining the swim club. Carter tried it and excelled, eventually swimming at the University of Missouri.
From that moment on, “Katie pretty much grew up on the pool deck,” said Shari, who had a 12-passenger van because of her big family and frequently drove Sandpipers swimmers to and from practice. The young Katie was her carpool pal, sitting in her car seat in the back.
“She loved being around the swimmers,” Shari said. “It was just kind of a natural progression for her to start swimming when she got to that age.”
As she emerged as an elite swimmer, Grimes made it her goal to make the 2024 Olympics in Paris. She would not have been a contender to make the Tokyo Olympics as a 14-year-old had they been held in 2020, as originally scheduled. But when those Games got delayed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it changed Grimes’ outlook. Her confidence was high, and a part of her wondered if she could make the team.
She felt best about her 400-meter individual medley. But when she dove in for the race the first morning of those U.S. Olympic Trials, everything went wrong.
“I just completely ate it,” she said.
Her nerves got the best of her. She had a vision of how the race would go, and had she swam her seed time, she would have made the final. Instead, she added nearly five seconds.
After the race, Grimes lay in her Omaha hotel room, sobbing. Inconsolable. All Shari could do was sit on the bed with her daughter and let her cry.
“It was the most devastated we’ve seen her,” Shari said.
Katie was sharing a room with her older brother Sawyer, who swam at the University of Minnesota and also made the Olympic Trials. He gave her a pep talk with “not the nicest words,” Katie said, laughing.
“Just kind of pulled me back up,” she said.
It was exactly what she needed. Over the coming days, she demolished her best time in the 1,500-meter freestyle, finishing third and narrowly missing the Olympic team. Katie Ledecky, whom Grimes had pictures of on her wall as a kid, told the young swimmer she was the future. Then, in Grimes’ last event, she eked into the final of the 800-meter freestyle, setting up one of the storybook swims of the meet. In the final, she out-touched Olympic medalist Haley Anderson for second place, qualifying for the Olympics.
Grimes punched the water with excitement when she saw her time and placement. Ledecky, who got first, swam over to congratulate her, lifting her competitor’s hand into the air so the crowd could cheer.
“She’s the now!” Ledecky said in her post-race interview with NBC, amending her statement from earlier in the meet.
“You’re the future. She’s the now.”
— NBC Olympics & Paralympics (@NBCOlympics) June 20, 2021
It was a career-altering moment for Grimes, whose youth was apparent as she stood next to the then-24-year-old Ledecky. Sponsorship deals would follow, and she was set to head halfway around the globe to race at the world’s biggest swim meet. Swimming, in her words, was “never going to be a silly little thing anymore.”
“This just got serious,” she thought to herself.
Making the Olympics at 15 was a momentous accomplishment in itself. Grimes, who was the youngest member of Team USA in Tokyo, followed her qualification up by dropping even more time in her preliminary 800-meter freestyle swim. But she was a tad slower in the final — though still faster than her breakout swim at trials — and missed the podium by a second. Had she swam her prelims time, she would have gotten bronze.
Was she happy with her swims, considering how big of an accomplishment a fourth-in-the-world finish is?
“Um …” she said, pausing for a moment. “Not really.”
Grimes rode by herself on the shuttle to the Olympic village, then sat under a tree to call her parents, who were watching from the U.S. She cried as they emphasized how proud they were of her.
“I just felt like such a loser,” she said.
Her fellow Team USA swimmers were supportive, though, and Grimes eventually came to the realization that she had put together an impressive summer.
Narrowly missing out on the podium also gave her a carrot to chase in 2024. She said it’s helped keep her motivated, though she estimates she still would have had plenty of drive had she come away with a medal.
Though trials and the Olympics was Grimes’ highest-profile meet of 2021, they weren’t her last formative one. When she’s dealing with tough circumstances, her mom reminds her of how she handled that winter’s Short Course World Championships in Abu Dhabi. Grimes contracted COVID-19 during the meet, forcing her to withdraw from competition. She then had to isolate in a foreign country. When her family celebrated Christmas back in the U.S., the 15-year-old was alone in quarantine.
Fellow U.S. Olympian Regan Smith remembers being touched by Grimes using her extra time to send Merry Christmas texts to her teammates.
“That’s something I’ll never forget,” Smith said. “A simple story like that, it tells a lot about who she is.”
The two-plus-hour race came down to a tenth of a second. It was the 2023 world championships, and Grimes reached for the finish in the 10-kilometer open water event. Her hand, it was decided after a photo finish review, touched ahead of Sharon van Rouwendaal and Ana Marcela Cunha, the past two Olympic gold medalists. She had won bronze, making her the first official U.S. Olympian for Paris and a two-time Olympian at age 17.
— NBC Olympics & Paralympics (@NBCOlympics) July 15, 2023
That, Shari Grimes said, was not on the family’s radar. Their daughter had amazed them once again.
The swim earned Grimes the USA Swimming Golden Goggle award for Female Race of the Year. If she can qualify for the Olympics in a pool event at U.S. Trials in June, she’ll be the first U.S. woman to compete in pool and open water events at the same Olympics.
But even without her world-class swimmer resume — which could grow substantially in the coming months — Grimes would not be a typical 17-year-old. Sometimes she jokes with her parents that she was born in the wrong decade, that she should’ve been born in the 1980s.
“She’s such an old soul,” Shari said.
Start with her music taste. She’s currently into Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana, Alice in Chains and especially the Foo Fighters. She also loves classic cars. She’s not quite sure how she got into them, though her dad likely has something to do with it. He owns a 1977 Ford Bronco, and they bond over their classic car itch. Grimes fell in love with the Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40, and she and her dad scoured websites in search of the vehicle. Her dad eventually found one, and Katie learned how to drive stick shift and helped replace the car’s timing belt.
“I like learning about them and how to fix things, and I think they’re just cool,” she said.
Heading into the 2024 Olympic cycle, Grimes — who plans to swim collegiately but has not yet picked a school — feels more nervous than she did heading into 2021. She’s not going to catch anyone by surprise this time. She’s a known contender, and she’s set expectations for herself.
“It’s like, ‘Well, I did it when I was 15, why can’t I do it when I was 18?’” she said. “But honestly that’s just the intrusive thoughts that you can completely block out. … I’ve gone faster and I’ve gotten better in practice and am working really hard, so there’s no reason for me to be nervous. Just trust in your training and trust that I’ve progressed and I’m smarter and am able to handle things better.”
The experience of the last Olympic cycle, as well as her pool and open water meets since, should help her navigate it all.
“I think she keeps learning how resilient she really is,” her mom said. “I think she feels she has so much more inside her that she wants to show the world.”
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(Top photo of Grimes and her bronze medal from the 10-kilometer open water swim at the 2023 world championships in July: DBM / Insidefoto / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)