Most teenagers might rearrange their summer plans to accommodate one of youth's rights of passage: driver's education courses. You'll have to forgive Katharine Berkoff if her priorities fall elsewhere this June.

"Just training and nothing else really" an impassive Berkoff, fresh out of the pool, stated Thursday. "Usually nine practices a week."

In one week, the 15-year-old Missoula Hellgate rising sophomore will join fellow Missoula Aquatic Club alum Hanni Leach in Omaha, Nebraska. There on Sunday, June 26 begins the USA Swimming Olympic Team Trials, the eight-day qualifying meet that will decide the United States' representatives at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.

Driver's ed can wait.

Berkoff and Leach, a 19-year-old Hellgate graduate, are inherently tied during this pinnacle competition. Despite their age gap, both girls have qualified for the same two races in Omaha in the same stroke. They'll join a field of nearly 140 and 190 swimmers in the 100- and 200-meter backstrokes, respectively, the continuation of a trend in Missoula swimming in recent years.

The girls' club team coach with MAC is, of course, David Berkoff, who is not only Katharine's father but a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the discipline. He's helped tutor Garden City greats like Major Robinson (2012) and David Cromwell (2008) to Olympic trials in his signature stroke.

"I do credit a lot of what I can do today to him because he's coached me since sixth or seventh grade," said Leach, who recently finished her freshman season at the University of Southern California. "And it's going to Katharine, too. Katharine has the good genes from him, too."


Landlocked Omaha may not be at the forefront of many discussions on water sports, but the Midwest city puts on quite a show every four years -- and a much different spectacle than what the trials looked like in the 1980s and early 90s when David Berkoff was competing.

The CenturyLink Center, a basketball and ice hockey arena that seats between 17,000 and 18,000 spectators pending its setup, has been converted into a world-class swimming venue ahead of the past two summer Olympics. A temporary 50-meter long course pool is erected, its metal frame smoothed by a vinyl covering and filled with more than 600,000 gallons of water, and USA Swimming's "Super Bowl" plays out under indoor fireworks, light shows and rock-concert-like music.

"When you think about temporary pools, you think of somebody's above-ground backyard pool, but this is very, very different," said David Berkoff, a four-time Olympic medalist. "... It is an amazing event."

Tickets for each session from the preliminaries to the semifinals and finals have already sold out, the coach said, guaranteeing an electric atmosphere regardless of the race. It won't be hard for the competition to match.

"For many of them this is the highlight of their career," he added. "It's a very exciting time, but also very high pressure. This is the cream of the crop for the half million swimmers out there in the country."

Included in the field are world-renowned swimmers and Olympic veterans like Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin, the 21-year-old and defending gold medalist in both backstroke events from the 2012 London Games.

The hundred-plus swimmers in each event will be divided into preliminaries based on their qualifying times with the top 16 overall placers advancing to the semis. The fastest eight there will battle for one of two spots the U.S. will have in each event in the Olympics in August.

Leach has the 47th best qualifying time in the 100 (1 minute, 1.94 seconds) and the 131st in the 200 (2:16.13). Katharine Berkoff ranks 97th in the 200 (2:15.40) and 129th in the 100 (1:03.01). The 100 prelims begin Monday, June 27 with the 200 on Friday, July 1.

Needless to say, expectations are tempered for each girl.

"I would like to get into the semifinals, top 16, but I know that's going to be hard," said Leach, a target and sentiment echoed by her younger counterpart. "I just want to take in the experience. I know there are a lot of swimmers, but not many people get here."


Building toward that ultimate Olympic goal is a process more than a decade in the making for each girl. The junior Berkoff has been part of a swim team since the age of 5.

So this year's trials are just that, an appraisal with opportunity to improve.

"They know that by getting this experience for the young swimmers, next time 'round they might be a competitor to make the team," coach Berkoff said.

Added Leach, whose Trojans won the Pac-12 Conference title this past winter, "It's a great experience to be able to compete against them. I just take it as every time it's a chance to get better. When you race against these incredible athletes, it only makes you better."

Even if it takes four more years to come to fruition.

The longstanding objective for Katharine Berkoff was to be in Omaha this summer and with that benchmark met, her sights will be squared on the next major hurdle. So for her, a 15-year-old swimming this weekend in the Missoula Firecracker Invitational at Splash Montana pool just days before facing off with some of the best in the world, nothing feels out of the ordinary.

"I was planning on it," she said of swimming in the trials after having attended 2012's event as a spectator with her father. "It's kind of weird when you think about it, but it's not surprising. I always told myself I would do this."

And so far she hasn't been wrong.

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