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BUTTE – It was a fist-pump that nearly went unnoticed.

But it sure meant a lot to Butte High sophomore swimmer Catherine Russo.

Russo had just touched the wall to finish the 50-yard freestyle at the Butte High Invitational at the Butte YMCA on Saturday afternoon and glanced up at the clock.

Her winning time of 23.53 seconds, in bright red numbers, stared back at her.

A smile and fist-pump were used to celebrate her personal record in that event.

“That one was very exciting,” she said.

Rightfully so. The state record in that event, set by Billings Central’s Jenna Marsh in 2013, is 23.52 seconds.

A little while later, Russo added a win in the 100-yard butterfly.

That was even more exciting, given that she recorded a time of 56.82 seconds in the event. She was nearly 9 seconds ahead of runner-up Lydia Amon (Hellgate).

“I was pretty happy somewhere around 57 or 58ish (seconds) so to be going 56 this early in the season, it was very exciting to do that.”

Russo’s time of 56.82 in the 100 butterfly puts another state mark into her crosshairs. The state record of 56.07 was set by Kate Zimmer (Big Sky) in 2014.

“When I finished this race, I had done my best time of the season and I’m doing a lot better right now than I was expecting to. That for me is pretty reassuring and definitely confidence building.”

Since the MSHA will only recognize a state record if it’s set at the end-of-season state championship meet, Russo can wait. And work on getting faster.

That means that the two-time state champion won’t necessarily be zeroing in on the opposition as she makes her way through the season. Her focus is on beating the clock.

“Now that I’ve gotten older and stronger, I need to focus on racing the clock always,” Russo explained. “When I was at nationals last year, it was hard for me because I knew I was competing against elite-level swimmers. That swim meet helped me get in that mode where it doesn’t necessarily matter how I compete against other people because they might be 20 or they might be 12. It doesn’t matter. I just need to be doing well for myself so I’ve been focusing on racing the clock.”

Russo, who along with Hellgate’s Bella Seagrave, picked up a meet-best 40 points each by virtue of their two victories on Saturday.

Helena High’s Robert Wagner and Darragh Mahns (Hellgate) did the same on the boys’ side of the meet.

Seagrave won the 200-yard individual medley and the 100-yard breaststroke.

Wagner’s victories came in the 100 butterfly and the 100-yard freestyle, while Mahns’ 40-points were split up by wins in the 50 freestyle and the 100-yard backstroke.

Seagrave helped set the tone for Hellgate, which is seeking its fifth consecutive state championship in boys’ and girls’ swimming.

Coach Helen Houlihan, who oversees the Hellgate, Sentinel and Big Sky/Loyola Sacred Heart co-op programs, was looking forward to competing in Butte on Saturday because she was that much closer to having a full squad.

“We had a meet last weekend in Kalispell and we didn’t have our full complement of boys,” she explained. “We really needed to get our whole team here and we need to start working on our relays. We have a very competitive boys’ team and everyone wants a spot on those relays. It’s really exciting.”

Now if she can only get all of the Hellgate girls at one meet.

Katharine Berkoff was one of four female swimmers still missing from the Hellgate squad. Berkoff had an excused absence because she was in Iowa City this week, competing in the Winter Junior Championships.

Berkoff turned in a record time of 51.95 seconds while winning the 100 backstroke (51.95) on Friday, and placed second in the 200 backstroke on Saturday.

Aidan Condit, Avery Maxwell and Lydia Amon also fared well for the Hellgate girls’ team, while seven of the top eight point earners in the boys’ standings were also Knights.

“The biggest thing is that the Missoula swimming community is really strong. It’s strong from the swim-lesson program all the way up through the Masters programs. We have two really strong swim clubs in town: The Missoula YMCA team and we have the Missoula Aquatic Team. Most of these kids swim on one of those two clubs. Roughly 40 percent of our team of 10 are club swimmers. When you have that kind of dedication and perseverance and commitment, you get fast swimmers.

Helena’s two programs continued to show improvement, which is just the way coach Julia Shannon wanted.

“There were a few bugs because with a bigger meet, they had a hard time getting where they were supposed to be,” she said. “But the swims were good. We saw a lot of corrections on things that we had last week (against Butte). We want to see better times but also in technique and errors that we saw in the previous meet.”

Host Butte had several swimmers do well, including Elsie Dickerson (fifth in the 500-yard freestyle) and a couple of relay teams.

"There were many personal best times," Bulldogs coach Lynn Shrader said. "The kids are swimming well and practicing hard. It's really starting to show."


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