Olympian Bella Sims poses with a local family for a photo op at the Vale City Pool on Tuesday, Aug. 10. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

VALE – Sherri Hironaka’s tinted sunglasses couldn’t hide her happy tears as she watched her granddaughter pose for photos with locals at the Vale Swimming Pool.

“Are you crying?” asked Olympian swimmer Bella Sims, wearing her newly won silver medal, and with a tattoo of the Olympic rings still healing above her ankle.

“Maybe a little,” Hironaka said, lifting her glasses to wipe her eyes. “I’m just so proud.”

The Ontario resident and her husband Dennis Hironaka hosted an afternoon of free swimming on Tuesday, Aug. 10, in honor of their granddaughter, who took home silver from Tokyo for swimming in one heat of the women’s 4 x 200 freestyle relay on Jul. 27.

The event included a meet-and-greet with Sims, followed by a chance to race her. Each competitor donated $5 to raise money for swim lessons for children in the community who could otherwise not afford them. They raised $120, and Shawn Sims - Bella’s dad - donated an additional $100, according to Hironaka.

At the pool’s counter, under a pop-up tent, the 16-year-old Sims signed swim caps and shirts, let visitors hold her medal and crouched down to introduce herself to nervous toddlers.

Olympian Bella Sims laughs alongside her grandmother Sherri Hironaka, who is also one of her No. 1 fans and supporters, at the Vale City Pool on Tuesday, Aug. 10. Hironaka and her husband Dennis live in Ontario. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

Over 130 people came to enjoy the free swimming, and there were even more visitors - including Vale Mayor Tom Vialpando - who elected to stay dry.

“In a world right now that’s so divided, it’s so exciting to see this,” Vialpando said. “With her local ties, to me she represented Vale too.”

Upon Sims’ arrival in Ontario, Hironaka drove her granddaughter around to see the yard signs featuring her picture that the community had put up in support of her Olympic debut.

“It’s so crazy, I live in Vegas so I’m not really used to it,” Sims said. “Everybody knowing each other, it’s kind of nice.”

Hironaka said that her neighbor Daniel Dominguez was one of the first to put a sign up, in front of his home. He brought his 6-year-old son Amilio and a friend to Vale to swim.

“These kids have someone to look up to now,” Dominguez said. “It’s not every day you’re in the same room as a medal, let alone an Olympian. These kids are going to remember this forever.”

Kids dunked in the water, flipped off diving boards and filled the pool with the sound of laughter and splashes, under the watchful eye of lifeguards wearing matching blue T-shirts reading “Team Bella Sims.”

Then it was time for the competition.

“It’s almost 2,” Bella said, grinning and putting her medal away in its protective case. The whistle blew to clear the pool, and visitors lined around its edges. Some kids climbed to the top of the yellow water slide for a higher view.

Among the first group of competitors was 13-year-old Ashlyn Hung, a friend of Sims during her summer visits to Ontario. Ashlyn said she woke up at 4 a.m. to watch Sims’ Olympic race on TV.

“It was just kind of crazy seeing someone you’ve known at the Olympics, and now everyone knows her,” Ashlyn said. “She always loved to race everyone.”

The pair joked and chatted throughout the event up until the whistle blew to start the first race. Sims did the butterfly - one of the slowest swim strokes - but still beat everyone to the other end.

Olympian Bella Sims smiles at her friend Ashlyn Hung before they compete in a playful race at the Vale City Pool on Tuesday, Aug. 10. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

“She’s so fast,” exclaimed one young boy from the sidelines mid-race.

The groups were divided into beginner, intermediate and advanced. Everyone but Sims freestyled, and one group of teenage boys watched the footage of their race on a friend's phone and laughed at their loss.

Mikayla Obermeier-Barlow was one of two swimmers in the younger group to beat Sims’ time that day. The 11-year-old won by 0.14 seconds.

“I didn’t know I won,” Mikayla said. She was then handed a certificate with both of their times on it which she showed her mom, eyes wide in surprise. “It’s exciting.”

Mikayla then went to get her Team Bella Sims shirt autographed.

“It was fun, I was kind of intimidated,” Sims said of her young Vale competitor.

This week Sims returned to train with her coach for the Sandpipers team in Las Vegas after a weekend with her family in Vancouver.

It was the first time in recent memory that an Olympian visited Vale.

A group of young swimmers take part in a playful race against Olympian Bella Sims into the Vale City Pool on Tuesday, Aug. 10. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

News tip? Contact reporter Abbey McDonald at [email protected]

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