Hometown Hopefuls: Bella Sims’ rapid rise to success built on family, friends, and Dairy Queen
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer of 2024.
When Olympic swimmer Bella Sims first got in the pool, she couldn’t perform a basic flip turn. She was disqualified from all but one event at her first competitive meet, and she even had to receive private lessons to learn how to plug her nose going into turns.
For Sims, it was a humble beginning to what would be a meteoric rise to success.
Just six years after she began competitive swimming, a then 16-year-old Sims found herself competing at the Tokyo Olympics and helping the U.S. earn silver in the 4x200m freestyle relay. Talk about a quick turnaround.
Sims’ movie-like journey to the Olympic Games began in Henderson, Nevada, a mid-sized city located just outside of Las Vegas. She started her athletic career in gymnastics, but at age 10, she switched to swimming after being pushed to do so by her mother Sheryl.
“My mom always wanted me and my brothers to learn how to swim, so we just got into lessons when we were young,” said Sims. “I had some friends at the time that were swimmers, and I had watched their practices before. I thought it was really cool, and it was something that I was definitely interested in, so I started out.”
Sims said swimming seemed like the “perfect” outlet for her competitive drive, but the Tokyo silver medalist didn’t take to the sport as quickly as one might think.
Sims struggled to learn different swimming mechanics early on in her career, and she admitted that it wasn’t uncommon for her to get disqualified, sometimes in multiple events, at a few of her early meets. When asked what motivated her to continue swimming despite her struggles, she credited her family for their support. Well, her family and a few post-competition trips to Dairy Queen.
“DQ for a DQ,” Sims joked.
“I wasn’t very good at first…in the 50 fly, I once did a one-handed turn and got DQ’d. Another time, I turned around on my stomach before I finished, so they were like ‘Oh, DQ’d,’” recalled Sims. “And after that, it became kind of a joke. My parents wanted to make it fun for me, so we went to Dairy Queen every time I got DQ’d. I think they just wanted to make sure I wouldn’t quit, but I’m so glad that they motivated me to stay.”
With the support of her family (and a few motivational trips to DQ), Sims quickly blossomed into a top swimming talent. At age 12, she was recommended by her coach to join the Sandpipers of Nevada, one of the best swim clubs in the country.
While the desert may seem like an unlikely spot for a successful swim team, under the leadership of Ron Aitken, the Sandpipers have generated some of the nation’s top young stars. As of the Tokyo Games, the Sandpipers have produced five Olympic swimmers: Cody Miller, Bowe Becker, Katie Grimes, Erica Sullivan and Bella Sims. Across all five swimmers, the Sandpipers were able to earn a total of five medals between the Rio and Tokyo Games.
Sims’ training with the Sandpipers has already paid off on the world stage, helping her to secure medals at both the world championships and the Olympics.
In addition to earning silver at the Tokyo Games, Sims helped the U.S. earn an upset gold and set a course record in the 4x200m freestyle relay at the 2022 World Aquatics Championships. At just 17 years old, Sims swam the anchor leg for the American squad and clinched the victory for the U.S. with an impressive split time of 1:54.60.
Just a year later, Sims competed in two individual events for the first time at a major international competition: the 200m and 400m freestyles. At the 2023 World Championships, Sims became the eighth American woman to ever go under 1:56.00 in the 200m freestyle when she earned a time of 1:55.45 during the semifinals. She would ultimately finish sixth in the 200m free final and eighth in the 400m free, but she wouldn’t leave worlds empty-handed after earning silver in both the 4x200m freestyle and 4x100m mixed freestyle relays.
“I feel like now that I’ve gone to three of these international meets that I know myself better,” said Sims. “It’s easier now because I’ve learned to just trust my training and everything that I’ve worked for. It makes it so much easier to feel like I’m ready for all of this.”
Sims became emotional when discussing her Sandpipers teammates and the monumental impact that the club has had on her life. When asked about the secret behind the Sandpipers’ success, Sims quickly pointed to the team’s close-knit culture.
“We’re all like a little family,” explained Sims. “I’m going to start crying, I miss them all so much. We always push each other, and I feel like that’s how we’ve all grown as swimmers and gotten faster. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without them.”
After spending much of her young swimming career with the Sandpipers, Sims was adamant about finding her next “little family” in college. Sims, the No. 1 ranked swimming recruit of 2023 according to SwimSwam, said that ironically enough, the University of Florida wasn’t on her radar before her recruiting trip in 2021. She fondly recalled being prompted by Aitken and Florida head coach Anthony Nesty to reschedule her ACT test in order to make it to Gainesville for a tour.
“It ended up being the best recruiting trip ever,” said Sims. “I had the best time of my life there. I was looking for a team environment that was like a family because I knew that I was going to be there for a really long time… and when I went, it just seemed like the most fluid and family-like to me.”
The University of Florida has become a mecca for Olympic swimmers over the past few decades, including the likes of seven-time Olympic gold medalist Caeleb Dressel, 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte and three-time Olympian Elizabeth Beisel just to name a few. Katie Ledecky, the 10-time Olympic medalist who began training at Florida under Nesty in 2021, is currently a volunteer assistant coach for the Gators swim team.
Sims said Ledecky in particular was a great resource throughout the course of her college recruitment process. Sims’ top-two choices were Stanford, Ledecky’s alma mater, and Florida, Ledecky’s current training base. She ended up committing to Florida and after toying with the idea of deferring a year, she ultimately decided to begin her freshman year this fall. Sims said she plans to major in marketing and to minor in either health science or kinesiology. In terms of a career, Sims added that she would like to become a physical trainer once she finishes swimming.
In the meantime, Sims said her main goal for this upcoming season is to perform well in both the SEC and NCAA finals for the Gators. She also said that going into Olympic Trials, she wants to qualify in all of the same events she competed in at the 2023 World Championships. Looking ahead to Paris, Sims said she is focusing mainly on the 200m and 400m freestyle events in addition to the 4x200m relay. While the 200m freestyle has historically been Sims’ best event, she’s also expressed an interest in competing in the 4x100m relay after her impressive performance in the 100m at the 2023 U.S. International Team Trials.
“I really just want to get better in the pool,” said Sims. “That’s all I really want to do.”