The Wolfpacker

May/June 2022

The Wolfpacker: An Independent Magazine Covering NC State Sports

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Page 23 of 51

24 ■ THE WOLFPACKER BY MATT CARTER C State junior Katharine Berkoff was riding high a year ago after winning the NCAA title in the 100-yard backstroke, the first female swimmer in school history to capture the national championship in that stroke. She then set her sights on the ultimate goal for every swimmer: the Olym- pics, which were held last year in Tokyo. Berkoff qualified third-fastest for the finals at the Olympic Trials, putting her in prime contention for a potential spot on the U.S. National Team. In the final race, Berkoff found herself in second place until late surges from two other swimmers left her in fourth. The result meant that Berkoff would have to watch the Olympics from home. "I definitely tried my best," she noted. "I did everything I could. I wasn't feeling as fresh as I normally do. I just wasn't feeling good at the meet. It was a really high-pressure situation, especially since I had a good chance. "I'd never had that happen to me before. I'd never been put in a high-pressure situation like that. I think it was a really good experience, but I was putting way too much pressure on myself." Getting over the trials was not easy. Berkoff estimated it may have taken about five months "to really be OK with it." "I had lots of emotional breakdowns, but I think it helped me gain a better appreciation for swim- ming," she added. To help recharge, Berkoff set some ambitious goals. She wanted to repeat as NCAA champion, set an American record and finish the race in under 49 seconds, which had never been done. None of that was going to be easy. The swimmer that Berkoff beat in the 100-yard backstroke at the NCAA meet a year ago, Rhyan White of Ala- bama, topped Berkoff in the trials and then finished fourth in the Olympics in both the 100- and 200- meter backstroke events, narrowly missing medals in those races. In addition, freshman Regan Smith from Stan- ford was a newcomer but arguably the headliner. She was the 2019 world champion in the 100- meter backstroke and bronze medalist at the Tokyo Olympics. Smith still owns the world record in the 200 backstroke and possessed the American record in the 100. Then Virginia sensation Gretchen Walsh, an- other freshman, was Berkoff's top rival from the ACC and earlier in the NCAA meet turned in the third-fastest 50 freestyle in history. Berkoff, though, had good vibes from her prelims when she qualified second-fastest after Smith. "That was a really smooth race for me, and I felt pretty relaxed knowing I could drop a lot of time that night," she recalled. "I felt really good." As anticipated, Walsh went out fast, and may even have surprised some observers with the pace she was setting. "She is flying out there," color ana- lyst Rowdy Gaines said on the ESPN3 broadcast as Walsh led at the midway point. Fortunately for Berkoff, Walsh was two lanes over. "I knew Gretchen would take it out really fast be- cause she always does," Berkoff said. "I didn't know how far ahead she was at the 50. I'm kind of glad I wasn't next to her, because had I seen that, I might have been a little nervous." Over the final 25 yards, Berkoff swam Walsh down, stopping the clock in 48.74 seconds. In less than 49 seconds, she had accomplished all her goals, with one holding a special place in her heart. "Getting the American record," she explained. "I've always had goals like that. It's really nice to finally achieve that, because it's been on my mind for so long." The NCAA meet completed a successful year for Berkoff. She added the freestyle sprints to her focal points and finished in third in the 100 and seventh in the 50. Berkoff hoped to get under 47 seconds for the 100. During prelims, she swam 46.89 seconds, followed by 46.95 seconds in the finals. "I really didn't know it was possible," Berkoff said of achieving her freestyle time. "That was re- ally awesome to achieve that." Eventually, though, Berkoff wants to follow in her father's footsteps and prove herself on the high- est stage. David Berkoff was a silver medalist in N ELITE STATUS Katharine Berkoff Sets An American Record In The 100 Backstroke

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