The U.S. National Championships are the place to be in American swimming. Each heat is packed with athletes who have high-octane resumes, as many of those competing are Olympians, NCAA champions or are on the U.S. National Team.
The caliber of resumes in the 50-meter backstroke A Final at this year’s championships was no different.
Amy Bilquist, a U.S. National team member, was in lane one. Caroline Baldwin, a finalist at this year’s NCAA Championships in the 50 freestyle, swam in lane two. Kathleen Baker, a two-time Olympic medalist and a three-time NCAA champion, was in lane three. Ali Deloof, who placed fourth in the 100-meter backstroke in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, swam in lane four. Hannah Stevens, the third-place finisher in the 100-yard backstroke in the most recent NCAA Championships, swam in lane five. Courtney Caldwell, a three-time ACC champion and two-time NCAA All-American, swam in lane six. Grace Ariola, a semifinalist in the 100-meter backstroke in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, was in lane seven.
And there, in lane eight, there was Missoula 16-year-old Katharine Berkoff.
Berkoff had never before advanced to a national championship final, but she made the most of her appearance.
“There's a lot of fast women swimming it in college, post-grad, and so having her get up and compete with those girls as a 16-year-old is pretty cool,” said Jay Friend, the head coach of the Missoula Aquatic Club.
When the starting buzzer sounded, Berkoff exploded off the block into her powerful underwater start. As she streamlined below the surface, she exerted forceful dolphin kicks. She was the last to break the surface, in similar fashion to her Olympic gold medal-winning father, David Berkoff.
Katharine cruised to a seventh-place finish, touching the wall in 28.66 seconds -- a time she’d discover is likely the fastest recorded race for a girl her age.
“We were blown away,” Friend said. “We didn’t know what to think.”
There’s a small catch, though.
USA Swimming doesn’t keep official national records for the 50-meter backstroke for swimmers older than 12, so confirming a record is nearly impossible.
“It was pretty exciting, but kind of disappointing at the same time because it’s not official,” she said. “Maybe one day they’ll make it an Olympic event and then it can be official.”
Even with her performance, she was just shy of making the junior world team.
The top two finishers who are 18 and younger make the team, except in the 50-meter races, where the team consists of just one swimmer. Grace Ariola, 17, out-touched Berkoff by 0.23, taking the lone spot.
"I really wanted to make the junior world team, but it was kind of a stretch for me,” Berkoff said. “It would have been really awesome and I'm really hard on myself.”
Her 50-meter race at nationals wasn’t the only standout performance she's had over the past year.
As a 15-year-old high school freshman last summer, Berkoff placed 36th in the 100-meter backstroke at the U.S. Swim Trials. She was the third-youngest out of the top 40 finishers and was one of the youngest swimmers to qualify for the Trials.
“I think that opened the eyes of a lot of kids in Montana swimming,” David said. “If this skinny little girl from Missoula can do it, obviously she’s doing something right and they want to be part of it.”
During her sophomore season at Hellgate High School, she earned All-America status in the 100-yard backstroke at the State AA meet and set a high school state record in the 200-yard freestyle by more than a half-second.
For Berkoff, each personal best is one rung up the ladder toward achieving her biggest goal -- to be the fastest backstroker in the world, according to Friend.
She hasn’t always dominated the field, though. She hasn’t even always enjoyed the sport.
“I didn’t like it,” Berkoff said of her earliest memory of swimming, when she was 5. “I didn’t want to quit, but I didn’t like practice and I’d rather just have fun in the pool than swim.”
She said she started truly caring about the sport when she was in third grade and began to break away from the pack.
Once she turned 13, records began to fall her way.
She currently holds the Montana long-course records in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke for both the 13-14 and 15-16 age groups, and the 50-meter backstroke and 100- and 200-meter freestyle for the 15-16 age group.
As for short-course records, she owns even more, including the top times in Montana in the 200-yard freestyle, 50-, 100- and 200-yard backstroke. She also has the 200-yard individual medley record for 13-14-year-olds and the 500-yard freestyle, 100- and 200-yard backstroke and 200 IM records for 15-16-year-olds.
Katharine isn’t the only Berkoff with her name in the Montana record books. Her lifelong training partner -- older brother Cale -- has his fair share, too.
He has four long-course records for the 15-16 age group in butterfly, backstroke and freestyle events and two long-course records for 17- to 21-year-olds in the 50- and 200-meter backstroke. He holds the same two backstroke records for that age group in short-course swimming as well.
The fast swims don’t come easy for either of them. Their training schedule is heavy duty.
During the summer, Katharine practices in the pool twice a day on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and once a day on Wednesdays and Saturdays. She does dry-land workouts three times a week as well.
Once high school season rolls around, she hits the pool four mornings a week, five afternoons a week and has a Saturday practice, too.
The workouts typically change depending on the day, but her 6 a.m. Thursday morning session consisted of 1,800 meters of warmup and a “tiring” backstroke set. In total, she logged just over two miles before many teenagers crawl out of bed.
“She’s the hardest worker I know,” Cale said.
He would know. He has been alongside her for more than 10 years.
But come this fall, the Berkoff siblings won’t be practicing in the same lane. Cale heads to Minnesota for his freshman season as a Golden Gopher in August while Katharine prepares for her junior year at Hellgate.
"I'm insanely proud of Katharine,” Cale said. “She works so hard. It shows in the pool. She's the best athlete I know. She has killer instinct, amazing work ethic and she's a good friend of mine too, even though she's my sister."
Although she’s just 16, she’s already competing at some of the highest levels of swimming. And while she said swimming alongside Olympians is intimidating, she knows she belongs.
“I try to see myself as being at that upper level because I've always wanted to make the Olympics, so I feel like I'm supposed to be there,” Katharine said. “I just have to remember that.”