Fifty-three swimmers will represent Team USA at the Tokyo Games, and of that elite group, four hail from Las Vegas. How do we explain our Valley’s statistically anomalous presence? Perhaps the desert heat is driving young Nevadans to the pool? Or perhaps the Sandpipers are giving locals an edge. All four of the swimmers headed to Japan are either current members or alumni of that prestigious Southern Nevada swim club.
Either way, each of the four swimmers has overcome great obstacles and traveled a unique path to the Olympics, as they explained during a group phone chat with Las Vegas Weekly from Team USA’s recent training camp in Honolulu.
Learn more about them here so you can fully cheer them on when they compete against the best from around the world in Tokyo.
Event: 4x100 freestyle relay
Standing 6 feet, 6 inches tall, Bowe Becker is all strength and explosive energy. But that natural talent hasn’t made his journey easy. “I’ve been through it all,” Becker says. “I’ve been kicked out of groups, kicked out of multiple practices, been to hell and back, pretty much.”
When COVID-19 hit, Becker says, he “retired” from swimming, a break that lasted six months. Since then, he has spent nine months grinding for his comeback. Becker says he’s thankful to “have the shot to swim again and have that ultimate goal fulfilled.”
The Sandpipers and Faith Lutheran High alumnus swam for the University of Minnesota, where he earned All-America honors in both the 50 and 100 freestyle, among other feats.
Sandpipers coach Jake Des Roches credits Becker’s “mental fortitude, toughness and desire” for his success. “Every time something bad happened, he worked harder,” Des Roches says. “He’s going to be a great relay swimmer for the United States, because he’s willing to do it for the team.”
Becker says his rough ride helped make him stronger, both mentally and physically. “It was a huge accomplishment, not only for me, but to show everyone that you can do anything that you’ve set your mind to,” he says. “It just depends on how much you want to sacrifice for it.”
Event: 800 freestyle
When asked if they want to win, most athletes demur, insisting that their Olympic goal is to make memories or reach a personal best. Not Katie Grimes. “My ultimate goal is to get on the podium,” Grimes says.
That sort of athletic audaciousness has helped the young swimmer reach the global stage. After the 2016 Olympics, the then-tween drew the Olympic rings and “Olympic Trials 2020” on her kickboard with a Sharpie marker.
“Katie making a choice to set that really big goal at a young age and then just being constantly committed to it is something most people will never do,” Des Roches says. “It’s truly incredible to say at a young age, ‘I want to do it,’ and then make it happen.”
One thing Grimes has already made happen: turning her onetime swimming idol—Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky—into a peer. “I definitely looked up to her growing up; I still do,” Grimes says. “It’s really cool to be able to connect to her and call her my teammate, so I’m very thankful for that.”
Event: 4x200 freestyle relay
Young swimmer Bella Sims has already achieved a historic feat by becoming the lowest seed to qualify for Team USA in more than two decades. Her fifth-place finish in the 200 meter freestyle earned her a spot on Team USA’s relay squad.
“I’m just honored to be here,” Sims says. “It hasn’t completely hit me that I’m on the team.”
Des Roches calls Bella the “definition of a gamer,” willing to sacrifice in order to go faster. “She’s there to race and she’s there to win, whether she has a shot or not,” Des Roches says. “In this case, it turned out [that] winning was getting fifth place. And recognizing that, ‘Hey, I got fifth, but I actually won because I hit my goal.’ … That’s what we call a gamer: She did her job to make that team.”
Sims says she plans to do her best in the relay and enjoy the results, whatever they might be. “I just hope to get closer to everyone and make more memories so that I have stories to tell when I’m older,” Sims says. “It’ll be something great to look back at.”
Event: 1,500 freestyle
Elite swimmer Erica Swimmer might dominate in the water, but it’s the terrestrial challenges that have defined her young life. At 16, she lost her father to cancer.
“I had to overcome the death of my dad and the mental illness that came with that,” Sullivan says. “I had a depression diagnosis along with an anxiety diagnosis in 2018. Having to overcome that with the sport was really challenging. Also, my journey of coming out as a queer athlete was also pretty fundamental in my life.”
Through it all, Sullivan always exceeded coaches’ expectations. “She has always been willing to work harder than we asked,” Des Roches says.
Ultimately, Sullivan’s difficulties have led her to seek to help others. “Honestly, I’d go through all those hardships again if it meant that I’d get to be a role model to someone at home who is watching TV and doesn’t know what it’s like to be a queer athlete and doesn’t think it’s possible.”
Sullivan will certainly be a role model to a generation of young athletes and couch potatoes alike. But she isn’t above admiring her own heroes. “Back in the day, I asked for [Olympic silver medalist] Haley Anderson’s picture in the middle of a Panera Bread, because I was fangirling so hard,” Sullivan says. “Now we’re teammates … and she’s one of my closest friends. … It’s a very surreal moment.”
UNLV helps two international swimmers train for Tokyo
Swimming for Serbia and Poland, respectively, Vuk Celic and Kasia Wasick will also be unofficially representing Las Vegas. Both swimmers have been training with UNLV’s swim program leading up their trip to Tokyo.
Event: 800 freestyle
Vuc Celic didn’t choose long-distance swimming. “It chose me,” he says.
Celic enjoys the “tactical preparation,” strategy, pacing and concentration required in a long-distance race. It also doesn’t hurt that he grew up swimming in Europe’s second-longest river, the Danube, in his hometown of Novi Sad, Serbia. “I’ve been preparing for the Olympic Games since I was like 5,” Celic says.
The 6-foot, 6-inch swimmer got a boost in August when he moved to Las Vegas to join UNLV’s swim team as a graduate student. Celic says that through UNLV, he has learned new techniques and training methods. “I believe that I’m in the best shape of my life at this point,” Celic says. “I’m really grateful for the coaches at UNLV for preparing me to the maximum.”
Event: 50 freestyle
The Tokyo Games will mark Kasia Wasick’s fourth time swimming in the Olympics. Poland’s fastest female swimmer will be competing on behalf of her birth country, but the European Championship silver medalist says she’s also “happy to represent Vegas.”
“I’ve had an amazing five years in Las Vegas. I’m really proud to call it my city,” says Wasick, a USC grad who works as a UNLV volunteer assistant swim coach. “They help me, and I help them. We train together.” UNLV head swimming coach Ben Loorz will even accompany Wasick to Tokyo.
Training for a race that will last less than 25 seconds requires unique preparation. “Honestly, I trust the process,” Wasick says. “I know how I train every day. The competition is the cherry on top.”
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