Kathleen Baker’s 368-Day Journey to a World Record

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

As Katie Ledecky swam under world-record pace for the first half of her 400 free Saturday evening at U.S. Nationals, 21-year-old Kathleen Baker and her coach, David Marsh, were watching. When Ledecky ultimately fell off the pace, Marsh turned to Baker.

“I never do this to Kathleen—I never do outcome stuff with her. She’s so big on goals that I try to back off outcome,” Marsh said. “I said, ‘Do you know what this crowd needs tonight? It needs a world record.’ She goes, ‘It does.’”

A few minutes later, Marsh turned to his youngest daughter, Maddie, and asked her to look at her heat sheet—specifically, at the world record, a 58.10 set by Kylie Masse last summer at the World Championships in Budapest.

“You see that record? It’s going to get broken tonight,” Marsh told her. “I never do that either—it’s sort of jinxing it.”

kathleen-baker-

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Marsh knew what was coming. He didn’t really know why. Her efforts in training had been solid, but she was just as fast last summer, if not faster. He just had a hunch that after tying Regan Smith for the national title in the 200 back—and not winning outright—that Baker might have something special up her sleeve.

What everyone at the Woollett Aquatic Center saw was the most aggressive 100-meter backstroke ever swum by a female. Despite hugging the lane line as she closed in on the turn, Baker swam the first 50 in 27.90, more than six tenths faster than world-record pace (28.51).

“I’ve always been someone who likes to go out fast, and that’s how I like to do my races,” Baker said. “I have a lot of adrenaline when I swim, and I get really excited to race. Usually, I don’t feel that fast until I do the turn, and then I’m like, ‘Oh wow, that hurt a little bit.’”

For comparison, Olivia Smoliga won the 50 back national title—Baker didn’t swim that race—in 27.70. If Baker had touched the wall at the halfway point of her 100 instead of flipping, she would have been just as faster or faster—and she still had another 50 to go.

She held on—30.10 was her homecoming split—and she produced a world record. It was the first long course world record set on U.S. soil by a swimmer other than Ledecky since full-body and rubberized suits were outlawed in 2009. It was the first at a U.S. Nationals since Ledecky broke the 400 free record in 2014.

Narrating the race from above, public address announcer Chris Hindmarch-Watson broke into an elongated scream: “NEW WORLD RECORD!” Baker thrust her left arm into the air and spun around 360 degrees. When she came back around, the clock still read 58.00.

“I was literally, like, shook,” Baker said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh—I just broke a world record!’”

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Before her first Olympics in 2016, Baker revealed to the world that she suffers from Crohn’s disease. She doesn’t often speak about her health, but she still deals with the effects of the illness daily. When Marsh is coaching her, he always knows he will have to adjust the workout based on however Baker is feeling on a given day.

Even on the day of her first world record, Baker had to deal with her Crohn’s.

“This morning she came in looking puffy-eyed and rough,” Marsh said. “I said, ‘I’m glad you slept in until 10 this morning.’”

kathleen-baker-

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

But Baker didn’t feel like she walked into the pool with her health compromised. When she woke up today, she felt “excited to race.” She broke into a smile and proclaimed, “I love the 100 backstroke.”

The day Masse set the 100 back world record at the World Championships in Budapest, Baker swam in the heat and finished second in 58.58, almost a half-second behind the Canadian. That night, Baker set a reminder in her phone: 58.10. Every evening at 8 p.m. for the next 367 days, Baker would receive a notification showing that number.

On day 368, Baker was finishing up her round of interviews around 8 p.m. PT, and she resolved to set a new reminder: 57.99. Sounds easy, right? She just needs to find one more hundredth.

“I think almost not hitting the lane rope when I do a flip turn might help. I almost smacked my face on the lane rope turning over,” Baker said. “Just fine-tuning some things, there’s always ways to improve.”

Maybe Baker will get that extra hundredth at the Pan Pacific Championships, where she will go head-to-head with Masse for the first time since Budapest. Also in that heat will be Emily Seebohm, the 2015 World Champion and the bronze medalist from Budapest.

And for the first time in Baker’s career, she will be the favorite. She is the world record-holder. Masse, Seebohm and all the others are coming after her.

2 Comments

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Josh Davis

    Great article! Great idea to have goal reminder pop up each night at 8pm to help you go to bed on time:)

Author: David Rieder

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David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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