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Missoula's Katharine Berkoff now eyeing 2021 Olympics amidst cancellations

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Posted at 4:43 PM, Apr 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-14 18:02:36-04

MISSOULA -- For two years, Missoula native Katharine Berkoff was qualified for the Olympic Trials which were to be held in Omaha, Nebraska, in mid-June.

Now, she'll have to wait one more year for her shot to qualify to compete in Tokyo.

A Hellgate grad and one of the most decorated swimmers from Montana, Berkoff was one of numerous athletes affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Berkoff was prepping for the NCAA championships when the remainder of winter sports were canceled.

Berkoff said that moment was emotional when North Carolina State head coach Braden Holloway told the team. But things escalated and got worse as swimmers were no longer allowed to use pools and swim or train with coaches.

That adjustment, Berkoff said, has been the toughest part.

"It's been really hard for me, mentally especially," she told MTN Sports.

Being unable to train was hard for Berkoff, a swimmer who never lost a high school race, had just won two ACC titles and was gearing up for a shot at Tokyo. Had the Olympic Trials stayed on schedule and she had to take this break from training, Berkoff said she would have been stressed out even more and the pressure would've been higher.

So seeing the Olympics and the Olympic Trials get postponed for a year was actually a bit of a relief for her since she doesn't know when she'll be able to get back on schedule. Berkoff said she hasn't swam in more than three weeks and estimates it will be more than a month before she's able to get back in a pool.

She admitted things were tough at first, and not being able to train was at the core of those worries.

"With swimming it's really hard because you really need a pool to be able to train and it's so easy to lose your fitness," Berkoff said. "That's kind of been my fear, but it has gotten easier over the past few days.

"Hopefully I'll be able to just swim soon and I'll feel much better."

While bummed she didn't get to swim at the biggest college meet of the year or shoot for her Olympic goals, time has steadily allowed Berkoff to move on and find optimism in a difficult time for athletes.

“I think it definitely puts things into perspective," she said. "It’ll definitely make me appreciate the training more, and I think overall it’ll be a good thing for all of us just to have more motivation and remember how much we love what we do because this is definitely a great reminder. Not being able to do it really shows how important it is to us.”

In the meantime she's been running to maintain some of her fitness along with some other strength and conditioning measures. She said she even ordered a wet suit to use once the weather gets warmer and she can use that to swim in open water such as a lake.

Berkoff's first year with the Wolfpack showed plenty of growth and a lot of success. The No. 3-ranked high school swimmer in the country in her class, Berkoff went on to win an ACC title in the 100 backstroke and finished second in the 200 backstroke. She was also on NC State's 400-medley relay team that brought home a conference title, as well.

The leap from high school to college is massive even without the hype Berkoff brought to the table thanks to her talent. But once she adjusted to the intensity level and training, the success quickly followed.

"It was a pretty challenging adjustment just because I think the training is so different," Berkoff said. "The intensity increased a lot, which is what I think I need. Overall (the first year) was a really awesome experience.

“I think I just got to really know myself as a swimmer more, which was really cool. So I was pretty bummed that we didn’t get to go to NCAA’s because I didn’t really get to see how the work paid off, but hopefully we’ll be able to see that next year.”

Berkoff qualified for the NCAA championships in the 100- and 200-yard backstrokes and had bonus events in the 500 and 200 individual medley, though she probably would've just swam the two backstroke events.

After the championships, Berkoff had planned to swim at the Canadian Olympic Trials to gain some experience before the U.S. ones took place.

Berkoff had been qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 100 and 200 backstrokes for two years, having reached that mark back in 2018. Berkoff had previously qualified for the Trials back in 2016. Her qualification marks hold and she'll get a shot in 2021 after her sophomore year at NC State is completed.

So going forward she just wants to get back into the swing of training to work toward that goal of getting to Tokyo in 2021 with a new outlook and appreciation of everything that has been taken away from her.

"I think it's really motivational because it makes me a lot less fearful going into really hard sets," she said. "Like, I would do almost anything just to do even some of the worst sets I've done this year, so it'll be good for that and I'll have less fear going into some workouts.

“It’s encouraging knowing that I’ve been through a year of it already so I know what to expect and I’ll be better at it this year.”