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The next wave of talent: Meet the 11 teen US swimmers heading to Tokyo

The 11 teens from Team USA shared their dreams and their journeys to earning a spot on the team in Tokyo.
/ Source: TODAY

The Tokyo Olympics are a teenage dream for the next wave of U.S. swimming talent.

The contingent of 11 teen swimmers headed to Tokyo for this month's Olympics is the largest group of teen swimmers on Team USA since 1996. They all spoke with Sheinelle Jones on TODAY Tuesday about their hopes for Tokyo and their Olympic journey, 10 days before the Games get underway after being postponed for a year due to the pandemic.

Unlike the older athletes, time is on the side of these budding stars, so the extra year helped rather than hurt many of them in their training.

"I feel like that extra year really gave us time to perfect the technique," Virginia native Torri Huske, 18, who competes in the 100 butterfly, told Sheinelle. "I think strength for me was a really important and game-changing aspect of my swimming, so it gave me a whole other year to work on my strength training and just to get stronger. I feel like it made a really big difference."

These 11 teens heading to the Tokyo Olympics this month make up the largest group of teen swimmers on Team USA since 1996.
These 11 teens heading to the Tokyo Olympics this month make up the largest group of teen swimmers on Team USA since 1996.TODAY

For a swimmer like 15-year-old Katie Grimes, the youngest of the 11 teens, this is not only her first Olympics, but the first time she has traveled outside the United States.

"I mean, if I'm going to go out of the country for my first time, might as well be for the Olympics," Grimes said.

Training in Hawaii with some of the biggest names in swimming has also led to some surreal moments for the young competitors.

"I've always wanted to train with Ryan Murphy, just because he's like such a legend in the backstroke community," Phoebe Bacon, 18, who swims the 200 backstroke, told Sheinelle. "And last night, I finally got to train right next to him, and it was such an awesome moment."

"Obviously this is kind of one of my big first national team trips," said 16-year-old 100 butterfly competitor Claire Curzan. "So I've gotten in a lane with Katie Ledecky, which was crazy because I used to only see her in like media and stuff. So she's been so nice and just welcoming to us."

Training alongside the five-time Olympic gold medalist wasn't too intimidating for Bacon because she has known Ledecky since they were both little girls. When Bacon was a pre-kindergartner growing up in Maryland, she was paired with a fourth-grade mentor who happened to be the future swimming superstar.

"I think it's wild," Bacon said. "Especially, I don't know how they paired us up because we have both very different personalities. But it's just crazy."

Bacon remembers watching Ledecky win gold and set an American record in the 800-meter freestyle at the 2012 Olympics.

"That was the first moment I kind of felt like the Olympic dream was possible for me is from her being from a small community and maybe I could (do it), too," she said.

While Bacon was part of a thriving swimming community in Maryland growing up, Lydia Jacoby, 17, took a much different path. Jacoby, who competes in the 100 breaststroke, is just the second summer Olympian to hail from Alaska and the first Olympic swimmer ever from the state.

The training camp in Hawaii is the only time Jacoby has ever trained in an Olympic-length pool.

"We only have one, 50-meter pool in Alaska," she said. "And they keep it in short course. So this is my first time swimming long course."

Curzan also had some unorthodox training of her own in her home state of North Carolina ahead of the training camp in Hawaii while trying to work around pandemic restrictions.

"My neighbor had a backdoor pool, so I was able to kind of steal her pool for a little bit and use a bungee cord to do some resistance training, so it was pretty chilly," she said.

Reaching the Olympics has been a goal since early childhood for some of the swimmers, and more of a recent dream for others. Minnesota's Regan Smith, 19, who competes in the 100 backstroke and 200 butterfly, has proof that her dream has been years in the making.

"So it was like my fifth-grade yearbook, and it was what we wanted to be when we grew up," she said. "And I said that I wanted to be an Olympian."

For Bella Sims, however, it only took shape in recent years. The 16-year-old from Las Vegas, who competes in the 4x200 relay, didn't even start swimming until she was 10.

"I used to watch YouTube videos about how to perfect my technique," she said. "I would try to use it in practice. If I ever felt like I needed more work, I would go to the gym with my brothers or stuff like that."

Two of the older members of the group, 19-year-olds Kate Douglass and Alex Walsh, pushed each other to qualify for Tokyo as teammates at the University of Virginia. They took the top two spots in the 200 individual medley qualifier at the Olympic trials.

"I just remember in the warm-up for the race, our coach looked at us and was like, 'Let's do this together, let's make the team together,'" Douglass said. "I was a little bit scared to say that because I think I was kind of in denial that I had a chance of making the team, but it definitely helped motivate me just knowing that me and my teammate could make the team together, so that was just super exciting."

"I'm really grateful that I have Kate next to me because we're training partners, and I knew we had known how the other one is gonna swim the race," Walsh said. "We both know that it's gonna be really close on the last 50 meters of freestyle, so having her there, I think that was really good for both of us."

Jake Mitchell, 19, had one of the strangest qualifying experiences in that he had to swim a time trial all by himself in the 400 freestyle. He placed second in the race at the trials, but didn't make the qualifying cut-off time to make it to Tokyo, so he had one shot to achieve that mark in a time trial by himself.

"It was pretty nerve-racking," he said. "The entire day leading up to it, I was kind of wondering if I would be able to do it because I couldn't do it in the finals.

"So I didn't know exactly how fast I was going to go. I just knew I had trained really well for it. But as it got closer, I was just trying to shift my mindset to be more grateful for having the opportunity to get another chance."

One thing the group of 11, which also includes 400 IM swimmer Emma Weyant, 19, appears to have in common is that there is a particular U.S. Olympian all of them are looking forward to meeting in Tokyo.

"I want to meet Simone Biles," Smith said.

Everyone then nodded in agreement.

"She's the GOAT," Smith said. "She rocks. I think she's so cool. I love watching her like highlight reels of competitions."

If all goes as planned in Tokyo, this special group of 11 swimmers will have their own teen admirers by the time the 2024 Olympics in Paris roll around.