Katharine Berkoff and Hanni Leach had a bad case of nerves Monday morning.
Who could blame them?
The two Missoula Aquatic Club-trained swimmers were competing for a berth on the U.S. Olympic swim team in front of 14,000 people at the Olympic trials in the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska.
Spoiler alert: They didn't advance to the semifinals in the 100-meter backstroke. They'll both get a second chance when they compete in the 200 backstroke on Friday.
But what Berkoff and Leach accomplished in such an intense atmosphere was still special. Leach, who just completed her freshman season at USC, finished 31st out of 155 swimmers in a personal-best time of 1 minute, 1.95 seconds. Berkoff, a rising sophomore at Missoula Hellgate, took nearly a second off of her personal best and finished 36th in 1:02.18.
"The level of pressure at this meet is incredible," said Dave Berkoff, Katharine's dad and a two-time Olympic gold medalist himself. "There’s a ready room area behind the pool where athletes about to swim line up. The heaviness in there, the pressure -- it’s so tense. You look at it and it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s intense.’ It’s tough to describe.
"For both of them to get through that and to perform the way they did in front of 14,000 people is phenomenal."
Katharine Berkoff and Leach confirmed that assessment.
"It was really intense," Katharine Berkoff said. "Everyone was kind of nervous, but it was super exciting. It was kind of nerve-wracking swimming in front of 10,000 people or however many people were in there."
"It's crazy," added Leach. "It's different. You go in the ready room, they walk every heat out; I've never had that done before. You walk out and you're in front of the whole arena, surrounded by people. You try not to look at everyone because it makes you more nervous, but it's really cool."
Leach and Berkoff were competing against a field that included U.S. record-holder Missy Franklin, who advanced to the semifinals with the fifth-fastest time of 1:00.35.
There must be an intimidation factor.
"There definitely is because they are extremely fast," Katharine Berkoff said. "It’s a little less intimidating because they’re scared too. It’s scary for everyone and everyone is super nervous and you can definitely tell that."
Berkoff said she went out fast for the first 50 meters of her heat.
"I felt like I was dying the second 50, but apparently I kept it up," she said. "Going out fast really helped me get it to where I needed to be."
Berkoff won her heat and posted a time that was faster than three college All-Americans.
"This is an event where less than 20 percent of the entrants actually swim to their best times," said the elder Berkoff, coach of the MAC team. "For Hanni to be right on her best and for Katharine to drop almost a second, that’s huge. I'm thrilled with the way both of them did.
"Just to tell you how fast it is this year, the women’s 100 backstroke is a different race. In 2012, both Katharine and Hanni’s times would’ve made the top 16 after prelims. That’s how much deeper it is this year. It’s definitely the most competitive women’s race in the entire meet. For them to both swim as well as they did is just fantastic. Very exciting."
Leach, too, struggled after the turn.
"It obviously hurt a lot in the last 25, but that's always bound to happen," she said. "My stroke has been feeling really good lately."
For the elder Berkoff, the meet brought back memories of his first trip to the finals as a high school senior.
"I had absolutely no goals when I was a senior in high school. ‘I’m just going to watch,’ " Berkoff said with a laugh. "It’s a free trip, basically. The meet was a bit smaller when I was swimming in it and a lot slower. It brings back a lot of the same emotions, same stresses. It’s fantastic to be sharing this with the next generation of swimmers from Montana."
And to witness his own flesh and blood take a path similar to his own just makes it all the more special.
"Yeah, it is. I can’t lie," he said. "It’s my own daughter. Not just that it’s my daughter, but with my background there’s a lot more eyes watching my daughter swim and maybe a little more expectation. For her to put it aside and do her own thing and swim a great race, it was special."
Both swimmers will have a few days of rest to prepare for the 200-meter race on Friday.
"I think the more race experience you get -- especially at this level -- the more prepared you are," Leach said. "I think I kind of got the nerves out of my system for the 100."
But Berkoff thinks it will be more of the same for her on Friday.
"I think I’ll be just as scared because the 200 is a lot harder," she said. "I’ll be scared for that more. I’ll be a little less nervous because I’ll know how it works. I know how I’m swimming so far and it’s not as scary as you’d think it would be going in front of that many people. It’s just the ready room is super intense."