MISSOULA — If you're like me, you don't think much about the Olympics until they're right up in your face.

As a Montanan, the main thing to know about the approaching Tokyo Games — yes, they're a go on July 23 despite all the COVID-19 naysayers and negative press — is that Missoula super swimmer Katharine Berkoff has a shot to make it to Japan in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke.

If her hometown roots aren't enough to draw your support, it might interest you to know Berkoff is Montana to the core. Humble, friendly and sincere to the core.

Early Friday morning she texted back and forth with this old sports editor, patiently explaining when we could watch her at U.S. Olympic Team Trials next week in Omaha, Nebraska. It's good thing I've got her for an adviser, I thought, because my knowledge of swimming is limited to jumping off the low board and trying to make it out of the pool alive.

Before getting into detail about of the upcoming U.S. Team Trials, it's worth noting that Berkoff is among the best 100-meter backstrokers in the world. Five years ago she's spending hot summer days at Splash Montana, now she's battling the best for a spot on our national team headed to Toyko.

It's enough to give you goosebumps.

The U.S. swimming trials are being held in two "waves." The first one, which is the equivalent of a play-in game to put it in terms we Montanans understand, started Friday and ends Monday. Berkoff is so good she didn't have to take part in play-in races.

Instead this Hellgate grad, who won three national titles and earned seven All-American honors in March as a sophomore on the North Carolina State team, will focus on races that determine Olympic qualifiers, starting a week from Monday. She'll race in 100 prelims on June 14 with hopes of making the June 15 final and the 200 prelims June 18 with her eye on the June 19 final.

Only two swimmers per event will make Team U.S. headed to Tokyo. Berkoff's best chance is in the 100 back, but the field is so loaded that making it would be an accomplishment on par with winning a medal in the Olympics.

Allow me to explain: The list of swimmers in the women's 100 back includes world record holder Regan Smith (57.57) and former world record holder Kathleen Baker (58.00). On top of that, 2016 Olympian Olivia Smoliga is vying for a spot.

Berkoff, who has posted a time of 59.29, is projected to reach the finals. If she does, anything can happen. Her success just a few months ago in NCAA nationals should give her confidence and perhaps even a competitive edge.

It's a very exciting time for Katharine. Ever since she was in grammar school, she has dreamed of following in her father's footsteps and swimming in the Olympics. Dave Berkoff of Missoula was a backstroke specialist who earned gold medals in two relays and both silver and bronze in the 100 back.

Katharine is a long way from earning a spot in the International Swimming Hall of Fame like her dad, but she's making quite the name for herself. This is her time to shine and something tells me she won't give in until she's made it to the Olympics.

Good luck, Katharine. We'll be watching.

Note: To learn more about the U.S. Team Trials and to watch via streaming, log on to www.swimswam.com.

Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 15 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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