By Bill Foley
For many years, Catherine Russo has dreamed about June of 2020.
That is when the Butte High senior was supposed to compete in the U.S. Olympic Swim Team Trials in Omaha, Nebraska.
Those plans changed drastically this week, however, when the International Olympic Committee postponed the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games until 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t break a little bit,” Russo said Thursday. “For the last 10 years, that was kind of my biggest goal.”
The future Ohio State Buckeye qualified for the Trials in the 100-meter Butterfly at the 2019 Futures Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, last August. That had her heading to Omaha for the June 21-28 meet.
Now, Russo has no idea what she will be doing on the fourth week of June.
“I’m sad for myself because it’s not going how I wanted,” Russo said. “I’m sad for my coach, and I’m sad for my team.”
While she was looking forward to representing her state and her team in Bozeman at the trials, Russo will instead enter the 2021 trials as a member of Buckeye Nation.
“I know I’m so lucky that they just postponed it,” she said. “I’m still blessed to be able to go as a representative of Ohio State.”
It is unclear if Russo’s 2019 qualifying time will stand for the trials in 2021 or if she will have to qualify again, something that should not be a problem for Butte’s eight-time individual state champion.
Those unprecedented decisions will be made in the coming weeks and months.
What is clear is that the postponement did not come as a shock to anyone, especially Russo. She had been expecting it for a while as she followed the spread of the coronavirus.
Russo also said she completely supports the move by the IOC.
“I fully agree with it,” she said. “Obviously it upsets me. But, as a doctor’s daughter, I full-heartedly support the decision for the health of everyone.”
Russo, a 4.0 student at Butte High, is the daughter of Amy and Dr. Anthony Russo, an orthopedic surgeon in Butte. Catherine Russo will major in exercise physiology and minor in neuroscience at The Ohio State University. She plans to be a doctor someday, as well.
Maybe that is why Russo is more concerned about the older swimmers than she is herself. She pointed out that the NCAA National Championships were canceled earlier this month because of the pandemic.
“I feel most bad for the senior swimmers at Ohio State and all those people who were training for trails because that was maybe their last meet,” Russo said.
Many of the swimmers who are seniors in college, Russo said, were looking at the NCAA meet as their last hurrah. Others were looking at the 2020 Trials as their last chance to achieve their Olympic dream.
Those swimmers are put in a tough spot.
“Do you keep training another year, or do you hang ’em up?” Russo said. “That’s a hard decision. They trained for years for this opportunity, and now it’s gone. It sucks because it’s not gone because of something they did. That is the hardest part for everybody.”
Schools in Montana are closed through April 10, and Butte High is turning to online and remote learning. The school canceled the prom on Thursday. Gov. Steve Bullock issued a shelter-in-place order for the state Thursday afternoon. It goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.
Russo said she is concerned that the lock down could go on for quite some time. She said she is worried she might not be able to begin her college career on time. She had been planning on moving into her dorm in August.
“We’re hoping that it’s over by then,” Russo said. “People are taking it incredibly seriously, or they aren’t taking it seriously enough. If people don’t take this seriously, it might not be done.”
Last March, Russo committed to swim for the Big 10 Buckeyes. She signed an NCAA National Letter of Intent in a November ceremony at Butte High’s Richardson Gym.
Russo, who is also known for her singing of the national anthem before many sporting events in Butte, was a household name on the Montana swimming scene even before she competed in her first meet for the Bulldogs.
She missed the first meet of her freshman season because she was busy competing in a national meet.
Then, Russo went on to win the 100-yard butterfly and 50-yard freestyle state championship all four years as a Bulldog. She also swam a leg of Butte High’s state championship 200-yard freestyle relay team along with Anna Trudnowski, Kallie Hossack and Danika Murphy.
She is a finalist for the prestigious Little Sullivan Award.
When she signed with Ohio State in November, Russo said her plan was to take two swings at making the Olympics — in 2020 and again in 2024 in Paris.
Even though she was devastated by the postponement of the Games, she said the timing could actually be beneficial for her hopes to compete in Tokyo.
“I do have to tell myself that so I can get over it,” she said of the postponement.
Russo will have a year of training under her Ohio State coaches when the delayed Trials begin. She will also have a much better training routine than the one that currently sends her to Bozeman almost every day.
“Physically and mentally, I’ll be in a better place,” Russo said. “I’m in the pool six times a week, and I drive 86 miles before I get into the pool. And I have to drive myself back.”
Russo has been out of the pool for more than a week now. She is doing work at home that includes swimming-specific yoga videos that she found on YouTube. She can also lift weights and do other out-of-the-pool exercises.
When she will get back in the water is anybody’s guess.
“I was talking to my coach, and she doesn’t think we’ll be able to start until maybe May,” Russo said. “That will be the longest I’ve went without swimming since I started. It’s getting to the point of where I don’t know what to do with myself anymore.”