Catherine Russo thought she would stop swimming at one point. She just thought it would be sooner, rather than later.
The local swim club, the Butte Tarpons, started falling apart as numbers dwindled and enthusiasm went down. That left Russo unable to find anyone who could push her in the pool, leaving her on the verge of losing the only competitive swimming outlet in Butte.
But she found a way to keep swimming.
“Swimming in general is a great sport,” she said. “I love it, I love going to practice and training. I love going to the meets when I do well. For me personally, being so competitive, doing well is something that’s extremely important to me. I knew at that point I had a natural gift for swimming and it was something I was willing to work at.”
Three years later, Russo has made a splash as a freshman for the Butte High Bulldogs.
Russo’s family moved to Butte from Gig Harbor, Washington. She had completed swim lessons growing up, and when she was 7 she joined the Tarpons. That’s when she met her future high school swim coach, Lynn Schrader.
“She just had a need to win,” Schrader said. “She doesn’t like to be second or third. She’s pretty hard on herself because she likes to win.”
Before Russo turned 10, Schrader had told her she was close to qualifying for the Western Sectionals age group swim meet in Federal Way, Washington. Russo had never competed or qualified for a meet outside of Montana. She had to qualify for the 10-year-old times as a 9-year-old, and that’s when she realized she had a future in swimming.
Russo’s intensity and training has paid off. She began training with the Bozeman Barracudas and the extra time in the pool prepared her for national meets. In August, she competed in the USA Swimming Western Zone Age Group Championships in Utah.
Over the summer, she won six races at the Montana State Long Course Swimming Championships. Russo broke two state records and posted six-personal best times in the process.
She hasn't let up.
Her success has continued at the high school level. In her first high school meet in December, Russo won the 50-yard freestyle. The previous weekend she competed at the AT&T Winter National Championships in Atlanta.
Russo competed at the Bozeman Invitational this past weekend and won the 50 free as well as the 100-yard butterfly. She considers herself to be a butterfly specialist.
“The 100 butterfly is hard,” Russo said. “Butterfly is one of the hardest strokes to swim. And the 100 fly is a sprint. You want to sprint it in the beginning and you’ve got to finish it hard. It can be a hard race to swim even when you swim it right.”
If Russo is in training for a national meet, she said she has to spend about 14 hours per week in the pool and squeezes in additional time for out-of-pool workouts. Now that she’s in the thick of the high-school season, Russo is able to cut back on her pool time — to about nine hours a week.
Montana is not a known hotbed for swimming. Russo, in fact, is one of the few elite swimmers in the state. Katharine Berkoff and Hanni Leach, each from Missoula, are others. Schrader said there are only about four swimmers in the state who are at that level.
“You very rarely see that coming out of Montana,” Schrader said. “We just don’t have the amount of people that are there to have the same practices as if you were in New York, California or Colorado. In Butte it’s even more so. The pool time is even less. We only have one pool (in Butte) so you have to use it when it’s available. … It’s not anybody’s fault. it’s just how it comes along. For someone to be like that out of Butte is pretty good.”
So far, Russo said she is loving high school swimming. Even though she is a freshman, she’s already set lofty goals for her next 3 1/2 years as a Bulldog. Her sights are set on state record in the 100 butterfly, currently held by Missoula Big Sky's Kate Zimmer. Zimmer set the mark at 56.07 seconds in 2014. Russo also wants to be a state champion in other events.
Russo would eventually like to use swimming as a way to to get into a top collegiate program. She already has her eyes set on a few options, like the University of North Carolina where her dad went to school, Virginia or Duke.
When she's not thinking about swimming, Russo is a voracious reader and plays music. One of her favorite books is “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green and she’s rereading the Percy Jackson series. She also added the piano to her repertoire when she was living in Washington.
“It’s definitely a way to take my mind off stuff,” Russo said. “I have a tendency, as I approach meets, to make myself stress out about it especially since school is also a huge thing that’s important. So I worry about that, and I worry about missing school. But when I read and play music it takes my mind off of stuff. I can focus on the task I’m doing.”
Russo is the first competitive swimmer in her family. When she was younger, she also did dance. So when she decided to dedicate her athletic aspirations to swimming, it surprised her family.
But she knew early on she loved the sport.
“I really just remember how fun it was to go behind the block with my relay team and to be able to swim with those three other girls,” she said. “Or going to meets and doing well and feeling so excited about it. That’s what drew me to it. I was finding that that was the sport I was pretty naturally good at. That really drew me to the sport.”