MISSOULA — Missoula native Katharine Berkoff has dreamed of swimming in the Olympics since she was a kid and was on the path to potentially making that a reality this summer.
Then the Olympics were rescheduled from 2020 to 2021 in Tokyo this past Monday because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It’s an unprecedented move, being the first time in the modern history of the Olympics that the worldwide competition was postponed.
The changing of the Olympic schedule left many hopefuls crestfallen as their dreams were deferred by 12 months. The teenage Berkoff sees it as more of a blessing than a curse and is finding a silver lining as a backstroke swimmer whose regimented life has been upended for the time being.
“It’s so hard to maintain good swimming without a pool, so I’m really glad they canceled it because if I had taken a month or two off before Olympic Trials, I would be freaking out,” Berkoff said Friday after being out of the pool for the third week in a row. “It’s going to be nice to have another year to get ready again.”
Berkoff recently completed her first season of swimming at North Carolina State, or at least as much as she could before the NCAA canceled competition. She won an ACC individual championship and was looking for bigger things at the national tournament as she prepared for the Olympic Trials, where she was expected to contend for a spot on Team USA’s roster.
Berkoff spent the year adapting to the demands of college competition and is still trying to figure out the proper balance of training, tapering and rest. She sees the chance to get another year of learning under her belt as an opportunity to help increase her chance of qualifying for the Olympics.
“I definitely think it’s good to have the trials not after an adjustment year but after I’ve been used to it for a little bit,” Berkoff said.
Berkoff came out of high school as the No. 3 recruit in the nation and made quite a splash in her first collegiate season, even though she needed some time to adjust.
The intensity of the workload was unlike anything at Hellgate, where she went her entire career without losing a race and won eight individual state titles, eight relay state titles and four team state titles. The weekly workout routine at NC State included 14 practices over six days, with nine practices in the pool, three lifting sessions and two dry land workouts.
The physical demands required for her to make it through that new type of grind were taxing at the beginning of the season. But she pushed through.
“There were points at the beginning of the year where I was so broken down and I couldn’t do anything more intense or else I think my muscles would have failed,” Berkoff said. “But it was really awesome, and I felt really good about my training, and especially towards the end of the year once things got a little less intense, like second semester when we started doing more speed stuff, I started going a lot faster in practice and doing stuff I have never done before.”
Berkoff had to figure out how much rest she needed before meets and the proper amount of tapering, which is a reduction in exercise leading up to competition to be in the best shape to have a peak performance. She’s still working to learn how her body handles it.
Yet, Berkoff emerged from the challenges to win the 100 backstroke at the ACC championships in April and take second in the 200 backstroke, both events in which she’s already qualified for the Olympic Trials. She was also on the 400 medley relay team that finished first, the 200 medley relay team that took second and the 800 freestyle relay team that placed second.
Berkoff accomplished all that without tapering for that meet because she had already qualified for the NCAA championships. The team continued practicing for another week, and she was looking forward to proving herself on the national stage.
Then it was ripped away.
“I felt really good about going into NCAAs,” Berkoff said. “I thought I was going to go really fast. So, it was pretty devastating to have that taken. I totally understand, like it’s the safest thing that could’ve happened, but it’s still really upsetting.”
Eye on the future
Delayed but not deterred, Berkoff still has her eye on qualifying for the Olympics when they finally come around.
Everything has a purpose in Berkoff’s disciplined life of pursuing the Olympics. Now the cancellation of college spring sports and the Olympics has drastically changed her daily schedule, like being out of the pool for three weeks, her longest stretch since elementary school, she estimated.
Berkoff is trying to make the best of the situation in Missoula, where she started swimming in kindergarten, following in the footsteps of older brother Cale Berkoff, who's swimming at Minnesota, and her father, David Berkoff, who's a four-time Olympic swimming medalist. Around the time she reached fourth grade, her sights were set on the Olympics and doing whatever it took to get there.
“I’m just trying to make a routine that works for me because I feel like I’m pretty dependent on routines because I kind of need it to stay organized,” Berkoff said. “I haven’t found it yet. Hopefully in the next couple days I will.”
Berkoff is now working out at home once or twice a day while balancing her online schoolwork as a chemistry major. Her workout routines include some 12-pound dumb bells, a makeshift bench, doing body weight training and using bands to mimic a swim stroke as she aims for high-rep endurance over maxing out at heavy weights. She’s also ordered TRX strength bands to get in more resistance training and conditioning.
Berkoff has also had to strike the right balance with her food consumption and nutrition. That’s important because she’s no longer burning the large sums of calories she would have while swimming on a daily basis.
As Berkoff takes on the new challenges, she now has a date in mind that she can keep an eye on with the Olympics being rescheduled to begin July 23, 2021. Her dreams have been deferred to a later date, but her desire remains as she chases the world stage.
“I would be so incredibly happy,” Berkoff said. “It’s been a lifelong goal of mine. It’s crazy how it’s so close now. That would be the most amazing thing ever. If I were to make it, I would still want to go for 2024 because I plan on swimming a decent amount of time after college and maybe even to 2028. But I don’t know, we’ll see.”