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'My whole life I've had this goal': Missoula's Katharine Berkoff ready for 2024 Paris Olympics run

Katharine Berkoff By Jack Spitser
Posted at 7:48 PM, Jul 02, 2024

MISSOULA — The thrill of qualifying for the Olympics is one few can describe, and for Missoula native Katharine Berkoff it's a lifelong dream that officially has become realty.

"I feel like my whole life I've had this goal, and I've always genuinely believed that I would make it," Berkoff told MTN Sports. "So when I made it, sadly, it wasn't like such a super happy moment, like I really wanted it to be, it was more like huge relief, because I was just so nervous before that race that something might go wrong and I would just mess up.

"My teammates and coaches have been really supportive and making me feel like it was a huge accomplishment, which it is. It's just it doesn't feel quite real yet that it's finally here."

Youth swimmers, inspired by Olympian Katharine Berkoff, compete in Missoula's Firecracker Classic

The nerves for the 2019 Hellgate High graduate were palpable as Berkoff competed in the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis.

After cruising in the semifinals by becoming just the second woman ever to finish the 100-meter backstroke in under 58 seconds, the nerves ramped up exponentially, and Berkoff needed just one more outstanding performance to realize her goal.

"But then the next day, things kind of ran through my mind, like, what if I slip on my start, or what if this happens, and all this unnecessary, like, fears that really shouldn't be a problem, because it's not something I ever really deal with in practice," Berkoff explained.

So Berkoff settled in, and away she went.

"I started out being super confident, and I knew I should be," she said. "It was so real, and reliving those memories from three years ago, missing it, I was just really afraid of that happening again, so super nervous before the final but just hitting the wall and seeing I made it was a huge weight off my shoulders. It was awesome."

Those fears from three years ago were from Berkoff just missing the cut for the Tokyo Olympics, but in June, those ghosts were put to bed, and the result this year was fruitful, as Berkoff finished second in the 100 backstroke, cementing her spot as an Olympian.

"It really set in when I hugged my teammates and coaches after the race, and they were all crying, and then I started crying, that's when it really hit me," Berkoff said. "And then we got fitted for our opening ceremony outfits and closing ceremony outfits and stuff. And that also is when it kind of hit that it was really happening."

And Berkoff credited that motivation of seeing fast competitors around her, as well as falling short, as key drives in getting to this point.

"I think three years ago, when I was going into trials, I was one of many contenders for that, for making the team," Berkoff said. "I wasn't as confident that I had it, like I really solidly would make it, because there were other people who are on my speed who also had a chance.

"And so I think I was pretty nervous for that reason, because I knew it was possible, but it wasn't guaranteed. And this year, I've just kind of hit a new level with my training in the past year and a half, and every year it's gotten better so and just the way I'd been training, I was so confident in myself, like I just knew that I was doing some really impressive things in practice that would reflect well in a race.

"And I've been working on my mental side of things with a confidence coach and my therapist back home, and it's really helped just changing the way I look at competition and trying to remember that this is all just for fun, and I don't have to do this, but I choose to, and that racing is more of a celebration than it is, like a scary thing, so I've just been trying to really enjoy every part of the process."

Berkoff, who recently completed her decorated career as a 30-time All-American and five-time NCAA champion at North Carolina State, will train in Cary, North Carolina, until the middle of the month with the rest of Team USA before everyone heads to Croatia to continue training leading up to the Paris Olympics, which begin on July 26 and run through Aug. 11.

Berkoff said she swims nine times a week and squeezes in three lifts as well during her training. Her head coach at NC State, Braden Holloway, will also be joining her as an assistant coach for Team USA at the Olympics.

So the Montanan from the Garden City will be front and center every step of the way in the City of Light, as she represents the Treasure State.

"I think people from bigger cities don't really get the hometown love that I feel like I get," Berkoff said. "I know so many people who are watching me when I was at trials, and it really kind of hit me before the race, and I was just getting really emotional, because it really meant so much, just the hometown support. I love Montana, and I want to live in Missoula one day again. So it's just it's so special to represent Missoula, and feel like I've got a lot of support back home.

"I think sometimes I can take swimming a little too seriously. So I think for me, it'll be good to just relax and try to make new friends and hang out with people I care about a lot, and just make myself comfortable there (leading up to Paris), so that I feel really comfortable when I'm heading into the 100 back."