Katharine Berkoff Aims to Build on American Record, Switches Second Event to 100 Free

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Katharine Berkoff wanted to put her own stamp on the 100 backstroke.

Growing up in a completely loaded event, she wanted to belong with the best of the best.

After winning the NCAA championship in the 100-yard backstroke as a sophomore at NC State, Berkoff was ecstatic – but not satisfied.

She want back to work and put together a strong junior year of training which led to a spectacular race. Not only did Berkoff repeat as 100 backstroke champion at NCAAs, but she broke the American record in the process (48.74). It also made her the first woman to break 49 seconds in history – something a large group of elite backstrokers have been closing in on since Natalie Coughlin got so close.

“It was really cool to set the American record. It was very important to me. It only got harder the next year. Already having one, I felt like I had to do it again,” Katharine Berkoff told Swimming World. “The 100 back is my baby. I just love it. It is a lot of pressure. It is a tight event. The competition only helps. Sometimes I watch that race video and it is crazy to watch. It is hard to imagine yourself in that situation when you feel broken down, so sometimes I watch it.”

And again, while she is ecstatic about having the American record, she is not satisfied.

Why would she be? She has two more years with the Wolfpack after opting to take a fifth year to work on her masters degree at NC State.

“I definitely want to win the 100 back and lower the American record. I want a pretty big drop, because, ‘Why not?!’ I graduate this semester (degree in microbiology) and start a masters program next year,” she said. “I am staying at NC State. I can’t imagine swimming for any other team. Taking the fifth year, and even after that, I am going to train here. I can’t imagine switching. I really love my team and my coaches. I believe in them and they believe in my, and that is really helpful. I love it here.”

While she isn’t switching schools, she has undergone a seismic shift in her second event, moving from the 200 backstroke to the 100 freestyle. The move allows her to focus more on sprinting (along with the 50 free as her third event).


Katharine Berkoff. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I have recently made the switch from the 200 backstroke to the 100 freestyle. I am more of a sprinter. I think I have a lot of room to improve in that. Initially I was in our middsitance group. I made the switch to the sprint group as a sophomore,” she said. “The plan was to stick with the 200 back and we looked back at NCAAs and my 200 back was pretty good but not great. I went out really fast and I died super hard. For me, at the end of NCAAs, it will be harder for me to have a really good 200 backstroke on the final day. So the 100 free is a better opportunity and I will have more energy.”

The transition has been good so far.

“My 100 free has always been pretty decent, but I never really had the chance to do it. My training didn’t change drastically. But it was a really good switch for me. I still do 200 back work, which helps the back half of my 100 back,” Katharine Berkoff said. “But the 100 free is a lot more fun. Part of it is that I like 100s more. My body type is more specific to sprinting. My dad was a sprinter, my brother was. We are all kind of quick twitch. My freestyle has really come around. I really put a lot of attention and emotion into the 100 backstroke, so I feel like it is a little more draining. Waking up on Saturday after that and having to do the 200 backstroke was a little too much. The 100 free, it is just – go – you don’t have to think or have a big race strategy.
I am still working on my start for the 50. Freestyle starts are harder for me to wrap my head around. But it is a fun, low pressure event.”

It is a welcome change from the gauntlet that has been the women’s 100 backstroke for the past decade.

“Backstroke has always been super competitive. For some reason, everyone my age is good at backstroke. Missy was a big role model for people my age. I think that is part of it. It is nice because it makes me better, but it is really tough, too. It is a lot of pressure. My sophomore year when I won, it was definitely my goal,” Katharine Berkoff said. “My goals still haven’t changed. But I put a lot of pressure on myself and it can be a good thing, but I also have to chill sometimes. Mostly it is good pressure. Having so much competition is definitely motivational.”

Especially during the rough patches of the season. That started right away for Berkoff.

“I had a bit of a rough start because I got pretty sick at the beginning of the year. My immune system was wiped out. I was training through the whole thing, so it took a long time to feel good again,” she said. “But I am much better now and looking forward to some rest. I feel like I haven’t had the big chance to see what I can do. It was nice to go to Texas and suit up, but not being rested yet, it is hard to do a two-day dual meet and feel good.”

While the year has been difficult in a lot of ways, Berkoff is still focused forward, something that helps her on tough days and weeks.

“I have gotten better at enjoying the process. I really improved last year at this. But for the most part, I really like practice. It is really rewarding to have a really good workout and feel accomplished,” she said. “Once I start feeling rested my confidence comes back and it is all better.”

Now, Berkoff is hoping that confidence grows in long-course racing as well. Already the fastest short-course yards backstroker in American history, she is looking to become more well-rounded as she aims for the future, and perhaps a spot on the 2024 Olympic team.

“After last year, I realized I needed to race long course a lot more,” Katharine Berkoff said. “My 50 was fine (another American record, 27.12) – I mean, you only swim the 50 one way – but I did not really like how the rest of that meet went. I am so much more comfortable short course because I do it so much more, but I need to take any long course opportunity I can get. That was why I did the U.S. Open and the Knoxville Pro Series. But traveling is fun. You almost get a day of rest when you travel, but it is hard with school, missing the second half of the week three weeks in a row. It is a lot.”

But all worth it when she made the World Championship team.

“World champ trials was a bit of a learning experience. I need more long-course racing experience. It was good for me to get that eye-opening experience then rather than this year’s trials or the Olympic trials,” Katharine Berkoff said. “Making the team was awesome. I tend to struggle with change. Going to a meet with Team USA for a long time was very beneficial getting comfortable with new people and being so far away from home. It is good for me to step outside my comfort zone. It is people I am hopefully going to be around for a while.
I have to be used to that with these international goals.

“I feel like I have been watching a lot of the world’s best and now I am here. It is reassuring that I am on the right track. One thing that is kind of nice is that my long course has so much more room for improvement. So I want to get faster (and get faster short-course too), but it will be easier to get faster long course. That is motivational.”

So is the switch to the 100 free, which Berkoff is looking to put her own stamp on as well.

“I want to win the 100 free, too, but I would have to put together the right race,” she said.

No matter what happens, the goals will continue for Berkoff, who is enjoying the sport so much, she doesn’t have an exit strategy in the works at this point.

“For sure 2024 has been on my mind a lot lately. I still love swimming. So I think I might swim until 2028,” she said. “I just can’t imagine quitting anytime soon.”

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