By Daniel Pauling//Contributor | Monday, April 8, 2019
Episode 2 of Season 2 of Off the Blocks premiers today, featuring world record-holder and Olympic gold medalist Kathleen Baker. Here's a little bit more about her journey through the world of competitive swimming, which ran in the Fall 2018 issue of Splash Magazine.
Kathleen Baker File
College: University of California
Major: Interdisciplinary Studies with emphasis in health and illness
Cal School Records: 100y back (49.80), 200y back (1:47.30), 200 IM (1:51.25)
Olympic Medals: Silver, 100m back; Gold, 400m medley relay
World Records: 100m back (58.00)
Baker Can Bake: pumpkin bread, which she's won multiple blue ribbons for at county fairs
Favorite NFL Team: Carolina Panthers
Father's Day Ritual: Playing golf with her father, Norris Baker
Other Childhood Activities: Basketball, dance, gymnastics, Girl Scouts, horseback riding, ice skating and soccer
When she was 14, Kathleen Baker told her parents she wanted to swim for what was then called Mecklenburg Aquatic Club. Their response: She needed to be prepared to present her reasons to its coaches why she wanted to join the club 80 miles from their home in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Baker met for two hours in a convenience store with former MAC coaches David Marsh and Pam Swander and was more than ready. In the notebook she brought with her, she wrote down the reasons why she thought the club would be best for her. She wanted to be with a group of peers traveling to big meets and thought MAC, which has since changed its name to SwimMAC and is one of the top programs in the country, would help her accomplish her many goals.
They were sold, and Baker was soon spending hours watching MAC’s Elite Team, which was filled with some of the best swimmers in the world, train before her own age group practice. Baker, who would always wear her suit in case Marsh invited her to jump in, would watch them to see what training at that level was like and to pick up tips.
“When I got the opportunity to be able to watch such amazing swimmers who had already achieved my dreams and [went] past that, I wanted to learn from them,” Baker said. “I used to watch race videos and study and read swim articles in school. I’m definitely a swimming nerd.”
This dedication and planning has made her swimming career so successful. She had a stellar three-year career at Cal that included three individual national championships before choosing to become a professional over the summer. Baker also won two medals, one gold and one silver, at the 2016 Rio Olympics and set a world record in the 100 backstroke last summer.
In her never-ending quest to improve, Baker has been driven by her setting goals. As an age grouper, she wrote them on paper she taped onto the wall next to her swim bag. Now, she sets a cell phone alarm that flashes her goal time in the 100 backstroke at 8 p.m. every day.
Olympic medals and world records didn’t seem likely in 2010 after she began feeling sick during the same weekend she set two national age group records. Baker had a false positive when tested for mono but went back to a doctor after she wasn’t feeling better several months later. A series of tests revealed she had Crohn’s disease, which causes inflammation of the digestive tract.
Baker was heartbroken. She thought Crohn’s disease, which afflicts about 1 million Americans and can cause severe diarrhea, fatigue and weight loss, would take swimming away from her.
“Swimming is such an outlet for me,” she said. “That’s where I went to feel normal or just enjoy my time. I love swimming more than anything in the world.”
Baker began losing weight and would have to get out at practice when she felt sick. She kept trying to do multiple workouts a day but eventually backed off her training. She would have to adapt her training around her Crohn’s disease, rather than always go full-bore.
Baker hopes to serve as an inspiration for other athletes going through what she experienced.
“When she was 12 and 13, there were no good stories to Google about Crohn’s disease and athletes,” says Norris Baker, her father. “It was one horror story after another. Now, if somebody Googles Crohn’s disease and athletes, she comes up and her success comes up. So she just says now, ‘I’m a good story about it.’ That just means a lot to her.”
Still, Kathleen Baker will battle Crohn’s disease for the rest of her life. There are days at practice or at meets when she feels great and days when she struggles. However, treatment options have improved over the past eight years, meaning there are more good days than bad.
Crohn’s disease isn’t the only thing she’ll have to face going forward.
To hold onto her world record in the 100 backstroke and earn an individual gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Baker will have to defeat talented competitors that include Canada’s Kylie Masse (who held the world record before Baker broke it), Australia’s Emily Seebohm, China’s Yuanhui Fu, the United States’ Olivia Smoglia and Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu.
“I do believe that world record has the capacity to go down quite a bit more,” said Marsh, who coached Baker over the summer. “There are so many great backstrokers right now. It’s really the most competitive women’s event in the world with all the different countries represented.”
Baker may also expand her range of events beyond the 100 backstroke. This summer at Nationals and Pan Pacs, she swam the third-fastest 200 individual medley (2:08.32) and fourth-fastest 200 backstroke (2:06.14) since the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Whatever her future holds, Baker is more than ready for her next workout and her next meet as she trains this season at Cal and completes her degree. Her cellphone alarm reminds her every day of her new goal—a 57.90 in the 100 backstroke—and she still has her lucky pearl earrings and sparkly blue Uggs, boots that she breaks out for big competitions.
But perhaps the most important thing Baker has is her passion for swimming.
She’s always loved being in the water and competed in summer league meets from age 5 to 18, even though she was already among the fastest swimmers there starting around age 11. Baker kept competing in those meets to show appreciation for where she learned to swim and enjoy how fun they were.
“What’s so important about swimming faster each year is just really enjoying it,” Baker said. “I’m 21 years old, and I love it the same way I did when I started swimming. I’m really grateful for the sport of swimming because it’s been so amazing for me and taught me so much about how to appreciate things and really enjoy the moments you have.”