Sherri Hironaka talks about how proud she is of granddaughter Bella Sims on Wednesday, July 21, for making it to the 2020 Olympics as part of the USA women’s swim team. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)
ONTARIO - The informal headquarters for Olympic swimmer Bella Sims, known as “Bella Central,” is a long way from Tokyo, Japan. It’s a dining room table strewn with pens, calculators and printed ledgers of Sims’ swimming schedule. A plastic Olympic torch has replaced the table’s centerpiece.
Sims’ grandmother, Sherri Hironaka of Ontario, runs the operation.
"It’s been the funnest, craziest thing of my life,” said Hironaka, wearing a blue “Team Bella Sims” T-shirt.
The 16-year-old Sims, from Las Vegas, will compete in the preliminary event for the 4x200 freestyle relay, as part of a team of six and with the potential to move on to the final race.
In June, Sims made the Olympic team by placing fifth in the women’s 200 free final at the trials in Omaha, Nebraska, improving on her entry time by 2.40 seconds.
She is third best of all-time in the US 15-16 age group for the 200 free, according to swimswam.com.
“We knew she had to get at least sixth in that race, and we were all there,” said Hironaka. “When she hit that wall and we saw the number, it was absolute pandemonium. We were all crying, jumping and hugging. My husband is very reserved, and even he was yelling.”
Bella Sims’ aunt Lynn McKinney, left, and grandmother Sherri Hironaka recount Sims’ journey from starting competitive swimming at the age of 10 to qualifying for the USA's 2020 Women’s Olympic swim team. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)
Her husband, Dennis Hironaka, also known as “Swim Grandpa,” said he was proud of his granddaughter.
“I think it’s great,” Hironaka said. “It’s an opportunity that not a lot of people in the U.S., or even the world, get.”
A photobook on the table documented where it all started - a home swimming pool in a cow pasture, just outside of Vale. It was there Bella would challenge her aunt Lynn McKinney to race on annual childhood visits to the area.
“I was her first competitor,” said McKinney, smiling.
Sherri Hironaka, right, flips through a photobook of her granddaughter Bella Sims with Lynn McKinney while Dennis Hironaka looks on from the kitchen on Wednesday, July 21. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)
Bella started swimming competitively relatively late for the sport, at age 10. Her first race was with the Sandpipers of Nevada, the same team that guided her to Tokyo.
“In her very first competition, she disqualified in every race because she couldn’t do the turns,” her grandma said. “Now, everyone talks about how incredible her turns and her underwater work are.”
According to Hironaka, Sims’ ability to work through setbacks with a positive attitude has taken her far.
“I’ve always said she’s my sunshine on a cloudy day. That’s just her personality,” Hironaka said. “I tell her, ‘Grandpa and I are proud of who you are in the pool, but we’re prouder of who you are out of the pool.’”
A small banner in their yard shows Bella’s picture alongside Olympic rings, and Hironaka has made more than 40 yard signs and 100 T-shirts for interested people in Ontario and the surrounding area.
Kathie Collins, who worked at the Ontario School District while Hironaka served as the director of school improvement, has both.
“Her house is definitely Bella Sims headquarters, and to see that makes me smile,” Collins said.
Collins has been following Sims’ career through Facebook, and said her favorite part is seeing Hironaka’s excitement.
“Isn’t that fun though, that a grandmother goes all out for her grandkid?” Collins said. “(Sims) will know she has people rooting for her back home, wearing T-shirts, and with yard signs and in front of their TVs. All that hard work is paying off, and I’m just so happy she’s there.”
Bella Sims’ Aunt Lynn McKinney, left, with Sims’ grandparents Sherri and Dennis Hironaka outside the Hironaka’s Ontario home, a.k.a “Bella Central,” on Wednesday, July 21. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)
Hironaka keeps a notebook of all the well wishes from friends and strangers alike that she shares with Sims. She collects photos of families posing with their yard signs to send her granddaughter, too.
“She’s blown away when I tell her stories of people supporting her here,” Hironaka said. “She loves it. She’s humble and she thanks me every day.”
Hironaka said she loves seeing the signs around town, and prefers to be addressed as “Bella’s grandma.”
“I hope every one of those swimmers has a grandma that loves them unconditionally, and has a cheerleader,” Hironaka said.
Sims will be swimming the first leg of the Women’s 4x200 freestyle relay preliminaries Wednesday, July 28, at 5:34 a.m. MDT on the USA channel.
If she gets one of the fastest two times in the group of four, she will likely compete in the final that evening, at 9:31 p.m. on NBC.
Swimming sensation Katie Ledecky is already slated to be one of the four swimmers in the final. If they win, Sims will receive a medal alongside the team of six even if she doesn't compete in the last race, having already contributed to their victory.
Early on in her swimming career, Hironaka gifted Sims a Team USA swim cap and told her she’d be in the Olympics one day.
“Grandma was right,” Hironaka said.
A “Team Bella” sign in the yard of a Vale resident near Vale High School on Friday, July 23. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)