More Sports


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

Firecracker Classic
Posted at 12:57 PM, Jun 24, 2024

MISSOULA — Katharine Berkoff put Missoula swimming on the international map last week when she qualified to swim in the Paris Olympics.

Back in her hometown, 600 swimmers competed at the 43rd annual Firecracker Classic at Splash Montana.

“Our pool is beautiful, you can’t beat Splash Montana. We’ve got the hills all around us,” said Jay Friend, who is entering his eighth year as the head coach at the Missoula Aquatic Club. “We have a super fun atmosphere. We want kids to swim fast, and we make a meet that's conducive to fast swimming, but we also try and make it fun.”

The meet, which took place June 20-23, drew swimmers ages 6 to 20 from six states and Canada, giving local swimmers the chance to compete with and against friends from Montana — but also to meet athletes with different backgrounds.

“It’s fun,” said 10-year-old MAC swimmer Evelyn Bernhardt. “It sharpens my competitive edge. And I really like that different places come to see different techniques and different abilities.”

“It's such a cool atmosphere, and everyone is just so excited to be here,” said Ella Stack, a 17-year-old swimmer with the MAC. “And we get to see swimmers that we don't always see at Montana meets because kids from all over come, so it’s a great experience for everybody. … It’s just always positive, always fun.”

Stack won a Montana high school state championship in the Class AA 200-yard freestyle while swimming for Missoula Big Sky-Loyola last winter.

Now, she’s a captain at the Missoula Aquatic Club, helping motivate and encourage her teammates.

“Making sure that they’re comfortable, confident,” Stack said. “Big meets like this are hard. It's never easy to go swim. You can be nervous. You can be not sure what to do, so making sure they know that I'm here for them and if they need anything, I’m right there.

“Also making sure I lead by example in my races, making sure I’m giving it my all and doing all the things I need to do before and after.”

Stack herself looks up to Berkoff, who won 14 high school state championships at Missoula Hellgate and also swam with the Missoula Aquatic Club.

“She’s such a role model for all of us,” Stack said. “I actually texted her the other day and I was like, ‘We are so proud of you, and you’ve done so much for Montana, everybody.’

“It’s just cool to know that someone from Montana can do something so big and powerful and leave such a mark on Montana, and it encourages the older kids, but especially the younger kids are like, ‘Hey, I can do this, too.’”

“She was like them once,” Friend added. “She started exactly where they started. And it's just so fun. Our kids really adore her, and she’s great with them.”

And who knows? Maybe Missoula’s next Katharine Berkoff is already in the pool.

“Sometimes I think it's just for fun, and sometimes I want to see if I can actually make it to the Olympic trials like she did,” Bernhardt said.