By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, November 11, 2016
Kathleen Baker has come a long way since she experienced her first stomach pains as a 12 year old.
Accompanied by a low-grade fever and noticeable weight loss, initially the vomiting and fatigue she experienced was thought to be flu or possibly mononucleosis. But when the problems persisted over the course of several months, it was clear neither was the problem.
This was bigger.
This wasn’t going away.
“It was very scary for me for several months because I didn’t know what was happening or what was causing me to feel the way I did,” she said. “We did a bunch of tests, ruled out what it wasn’t and then narrowed it down to the problem.”
What Baker has is Crohn’s Disease, a chronic inflammation of her digestive tract that can result in ulcers lining her esophagus all the way down to her stomach.
Once she was diagnosed, she said it was a relief to know what made her lose 10 percent of her body weight, sleep for 15 hours at a time and kept her out of the pool for long stretches.
Now that she has the disease under control with medication, diet and determination, Baker is flourishing in and out of the water – but it’s been in the water where she’s enjoying the most success.
This summer, she made good on several years of promise that included Pan Pacific Championships (2014) and World Championships (2015) to earn a spot on her first Olympic team at Olympic Trials in Omaha.
But it was in Rio that she enjoyed her international breakthrough by winning silver in the 100 back and added gold as a member of the 400 medley relay. A year earlier at Worlds, she made the event final but didn’t medal.
For Baker, the meet proved a dream come true – especially after succumbing to the enormity and pageantry of Trials four years ago and not making any finals or the Olympic team.
“Four years ago, I was at Trials mostly to gain experience and learn about the process,” she said. “After my last semifinal, I was like ‘Hey, let’s go get some ice cream.’ This summer, I felt like I had a chance to make the team, so my focus was much sharper. I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t made the team.”
Baker said she was “hyper focused” on the 100 backstroke at Trials as her best event, and because she made a lot of sacrifices over the past few years to get there, she worked particularly hard to make sure she took each step toward making the team in stride.
And even though she didn’t win the event at Trials – she finished second to Trials champion Olivia Smoliga – Baker said she knew having the pressure of making the team behind her would allow her to train well and focus on medaling in Rio.
Not bad for the young lady who followed older sister, Rachel, to swim practice as a 5-year-old.
“There’s always pressure to do well when you wear the red, white and blue in competition,” she said. “So I wanted to swim and continue the legacy for the United State in Rio.”
Baker came up through the ranks and experienced her first big-meet success at the 2013 FINA World Junior Championships – winning silver medals in the 100 and 200 backstrokes and bronze as a member of the 400m medley and mixed 400m medley relays.
Her performance later that year at 2013 Phillips 66 National Championships earned her the opportunity to compete for the United States at the 2013 Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool. She held her own, finishing third in the 200 back with top 7 finishes in the 100 fly, 100 back and 200 individual medley.
She said that experience – her first senior-level international meet – was a great learning experience for her and has stayed with her.
Baker said each time she takes to the water – whether with her U.S. teammates or against the best swimmers in the world – she knows the experience will make her a better competitor and swimmer.
Because stress can accelerate her Crohn’s Disease symptoms, Baker said she takes great care to remain calm and keep things in perspective in the pool as well as in the classroom.
In Rio, she was able to channel any stress she may have felt into feelings of excitement and expectation, and it paid off.
With 2012 Olympic champion and U.S. teammate Missy Franklin struggling as of late, Baker said she didn’t feel any extra pressure to perform at the Olympics.
If anything, with Franklin on the team (competing in the 200 freestyle and as a member of the 800 freestyle relay), Baker said she took comfort in having her friend and competitor with her for guidance and support.
“I really just wanted to swim well and represent my country by winning a medal,” Baker said. “It was comforting in the ready room before the final looking over and seeing Olivia there with me. The race went well, and it made me excited for what was still to come.”
A few days after her individual event, Baker had “the honor” of swimming in her first senior international relay final as a member of the 400 medley relay team.
She said getting the opportunity to swim – especially in the evening final – was one of the most special moments of the Olympics and her life.
“I was able to compete with my friends and teammates, and that was almost secondary to winning the gold medal,” said Baker, who was homeschooled before starting her freshman year at the University of California-Berkeley last year.
“There really is nothing like walking out on deck, hand-in-hand with your U.S. teammates and hearing your names called together. And then winning just made everything even more special.”
Back at Cal-Berkeley for her sophomore season, Baker said her success this summer has given her tremendous confidence in the pool and classroom.
She’s focused on her future collegiate season as well as looking forward to what’s to come next year in international competition.
“I’m focused on continuing to grow as a person and having the confidence will help me accomplish that,” she said. “I also want to continue to talk to people and groups about my Crohn’s Disease because I don’t think many people understand how debilitating it can be if left untreated.
“I could never have trained and competed at the level I have the past few years if I hadn’t been properly diagnosed and treated. Crohn’s is a disease a lot of people have heard of but don’t understand. I want to change that in every way I can.”