Katharine Berkoff Strikes Gold in 100 Back at World University Games Continues Family Tradition

Katharine Berkoff clocked a time of 59.29, good for a Games record that eclipsed the 59.57 she posted in prelims.

Sometimes, success does run in the family.

More than 30 years after her father, David Berkoff, revolutionized the backstroke event with his underwater prowess, Katharine Berkoff earned the first international title of her career when she prevailed in the 100-meter backstroke at the World University Games in Naples, Italy. Heading into her freshman year at North Caroline State University, the younger Berkoff clocked a time of 59.29, good for a Games record that eclipsed the 59.57 she posted in prelims.

Berkoff led a gold-silver finish for the United States, as Elise Haan, also of North Caroline State, took silver in 59.62, with the bronze medal going to Italy’s Silvia Scalia in 1:00.43. Many offspring have found themselves in pressurized situations through the years, expected to repeat the success of their parents. While numerous next-generation athletes have failed to live up to expectations (sometimes unrealistic), Berkoff has routinely shined, consistently lowering her times in both long-course and short-course competition, with her biggest moment delivered in a Team USA cap this weekend.

Expected to contend for a spot on the American roster for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Berkoff went out in 28.75, .08 behind the opening 50 meters of Haan (28.67). But Berkoff pulled ahead of her compatriot on the final lap to touch comfortably ahead and write her own chapter in the family’s book of international excellence. Upon witnessing his daughter capture the gold medal in Italy, the elder Berkoff took to social media and congratulated Katharine, writing on Facebook: “So proud of my amazing daughter who just won the World University Games 100 back in a new record time of 59.29!!! Go USA.”

A 2005 inductee into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Dave Berkoff redefined the 100 backstroke in the late 1980s by incorporating a powerful dolphin kick for the majority of his way down the length of the pool. It was not unusual for Berkoff to remain underwater for 35 meters off the start and turn of his backstroke races, thus benefiting from his underwater skill. This approach to his races enabled Berkoff to set three world records in the 100 backstroke and become the first man to crack the 55-second barrier in the event. His revolutionary method caught on with others and opened minds to the impact and importance of the dolphin kick and underwater skill.

At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Berkoff engaged in an epic duel with Japan’s Daichi Suzuki, who has also adopted the tactic of remaining underwater for large portions of his races. Although Berkoff broke the world record in the 100 back during prelims in Seoul, going 54.51, Suzuki got to the wall first in the final, earning gold in 55.05, with Berkoff grabbing the silver medal in 55.18. Berkoff added gold in Seoul as a member of the United States’ 400 medley relay and returned to the Olympic stage in 1992 to earn gold again in the medley relay, which complemented a bronze medal in the 100 backstroke.

By the time Berkoff reached the 1992 Games in Barcelona, however, FINA had instituted changes which limited swimmers to remaining submerged for only the first 10 meters of a swim (eventually changed to 15 meters). Obviously, Berkoff was a major reason for the change in rules.

Three decades later, Berkoff – who coached his daughter at the club level in Montana – is now watching the family backstroke tradition carry forward. Katharine Berkoff will be part of a stacked group of contenders for Olympic berths next summer, the likes of Kathleen Baker, Olivia Smoliga and Regan Smith also major factors for Tokyo invitations.



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4 years ago

“just shy” of the world record? She’s 1.29 seconds shy. That’s not even close.

Katharine's Mo
Katharine's Mo
4 years ago

Why so insecure, Raymond?

4 years ago

Insecure? Seems to me like you’re a troll. Raymond pointing out a simple, obvious fact is hardly insecure. It’s not a knock on Berkoff. She’s great. But she’s not in the same neighborhood as the world record.

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