Katharine Berkoff From Devastation to Motivation to Jubilation as Olympian

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Katharine Berkoff was devastated after missing the Olympic team in 2021.

But in that devastation came motivation – a motivation unlike anything she had experienced before.

Berkoff worked her way back to the top of the world in the 100 backstroke. She won NCAA championships and earned World Championship medals.

But the Olympic team still remained the focus.

With a stunning performance on Tuesday, Berkoff qualified for her first Olympic team by taking second in the 100 backstroke. She got to the wall in 57.91.

“It is like a huge relief. It has been a dream of mine for so long. I am just so grateful. Three years ago, not making it, as horrible as it was at the time, I think it is the best thing that ever happened to me, for my career, in the long run,” Berkoff said. “It just lit a fire under me that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. The motivation I have had for the past three years has been huge.”

Regan Smith won the race, breaking the world record with a stunning swim of 57.13. Berkoff’s time was overshadowed by that feat but was still one of the top five times in history.

“Watching Katharine go 57 (in the semis) was really motivating … that is so frickin hard to do,” Smith said.

It could set up another showdown with the top three performers in the world.

Berkoff was the bronze medalist at 2023 worlds behind Australia’s Kaylee McKeown, who set the world record in that meet. Smith took the silver.

“If you are second, you don’t want to be second for very long and that is a little extra motivation. Regan makes me better,” Katharine Berkoff said.

Her father David Berkoff was a two-time Olympian in the 100 backstroke, something that has always added pressure, not that it was pressure from her parents.

“I have put so much pressure on myself, and remembering the feeling last time seeing the scoreboard – I was really scared of it happening again. Seeing second was just such a huge relief,” she said.

Berkoff has been one of the top short-course freestylers the past few years. Her final NCAA Championships in March saw her win the 100 backstroke and finish second behind Gretchen Walsh in both the 50 and 100 freestyles.

But with an Olympic spot on the line, despite the lure of possible relay spots, Berkoff scratched the 100 freestyle to focus on the backstroke.

The strategy paid off big time.

“I would love to give long-course freestyle a chance, but I haven’t proven myself in it yet and I didn’t want to take a risk by guessing I could make it or do well. I thought I would have a better chance if I could go all in with the 100 backstroke,” she said.

It led to a thrilling finish.

“I have been practicing better than I ever have in my life for the past year and a half,” Katharine Berkoff said. “I gave it all I had that last 25.”

And she exited the pool a first-time Olympian.

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Isabelle Fraser
Isabelle Fraser
7 days ago

She looked great. So happy she made the team this time.

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