(Editor's note: This is the fifth of eight features highlighting the careers of the 2020 Little Sullivan Award finalists. Links to the other stories can be found at the bottom of this article.)
BUTTE — Lynn Schrader has coached dozens of swimmers throughout her career and seen the numerous superstitions they bring with them.
None have been as iconic as Catherine Russo’s.
“I do not know where it came from, but she wears the red lipstick, and then before they say, 'Take your mark,' when her foot is up there, she has to stomp her foot really hard on the fin part for her back foot,” Schrader said of her star pupil. “That is her signature. That's what she does. And you would not see her at a finals meet without the red lipstick.”
For competing swimmers, just seeing the red lipstick is intimidating enough. Russo etched her name in Montana swimming lore the past four years, winning consecutive titles in the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard butterfly, joining a short list of four-time individual champions.
“Swimming seemed, she just looked even younger, she flowed in the water pretty good. I know she did track and stuff, too, but I think the water just was a good fit for her,” said Schrader, who was Russo’s first coach in the Mining City. “But she worked hard, and she does in everything she does. She pushes herself, I mean, in (swimming), in school, in everything she does.”
The achievements are staggering. Russo owns Montana state records in both the 50 free and 100 fly — 22.76 and 54.15 seconds, respectively — after a fine run as a youth swimmer. She’ll join the Ohio State swim program on scholarship this fall and anxiously awaits competition at the Olympic Trials, which were scheduled for this summer but postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though she has what’s sure to be a bright future still in front of her, Schrader admits the accomplishments thus far have been greater than even she could have imagined.
“It did blow my mind a little bit because I knew she was good in going to college, I knew that. I knew when she went to nationals in juniors, how she placed and did that, but I did not realize that her time was super close to the Olympic Trials. So it was a nice surprise when I found out,” Schrader said.
“Obviously I've known her and swam and watched her swim since she was 7 years old. I knew that she could place No. 1 or No. 2 in pretty much every single event. She only lost two or three races in her whole high school career: one was the backstroke, and obviously she lost it to (former Missoula Hellgate undefeated swimmer) Katharine Berkoff, who made the Olympic Trials in the backstroke, you know? But just watching her, I knew that she would be good when she came up the whole time, you know? I knew it, and she has the confidence that she knows that she's good because she works at it. She works hard at it.”
Russo’s work in the classroom matches, perhaps even exceeds, her efforts in the pool. A 4.0 student, she scored off the charts on the ACT, according to Schrader. In fact, her grades were so impressive, Russo could have landed a full-ride scholarship to Ohio State in academics, through the Presidential Scholars Program, or athletics, with the latter being the final decision.
“I don't know if people knew this, but she's been taking extra classes since she was young,” explained Schrader. “I think people just hear the swimming part, but I don't think they realize how hard she worked in school, also, like the extra classes, taking this, taking them online. She pushed herself in both academics and in her sports, she is a person who pushes herself to be the best in everything she does.”
“I'm beyond proud,” Schrader continued. “I'm glad that I was at the ground level like that, I got to coach her as a little kid.”
Imagine if the red lipstick had started back then.
Little Sullivan 2020 finalists: Dane Warp, Carroll College basketball; Paige Harris, North Dakota State University track and field; McKenzie Johnston, Montana Lady Griz basketball; Tres Tinkle, Oregon State basketball.