Kathleen Baker Continues to Be Face of Triumph Over Obstacles as She Aims For Second Olympic Team

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Photo Courtesy: Christopher Anderson/Lilly

When Kathleen Baker qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, she shared her story and her struggles with Crohn’s disease on the global platform.

It was something most people, even many close to her, did not know or did not fully understand.

Now, aiming for her second Olympic team, Baker’s story is well-known within the swimming community and she has been a source of courage and inspiration for many young swimmers who are battling more than just the competition.

“I have been more in tune in my body and tried to live less in denial about having a chronic disease because it can be hard to want to be normal — and I am not, and have always struggled with that,” Kathleen Baker told Swimming World.

Baker is 24 and plans to swim the 100 and 200 backstroke events as well as the 200 IM at the upcoming Olympic Trials.
Her outlook on the sport and her journey have changed a lot in the past five years.

“So much has changed. I was 19 and so few people in my life actually knew I had Crohn’s disease vs. now when it is common knowledge,” Baker said. “I love that I am able to share my story and also love that so many people around me understand why I do things differently out of the pool or in the pool, like needing more sleep or going to a doctor’s appointment. It is a different level of understanding, which on a personal level, is really nice for me.”

But there are many more levels that Baker’s story is affecting.

THE PLATFORM

“On a platform level, being able to represent the Crohn’s and colitis community in such a good light and share my story — and share the light that it is not always perfect. Yes, I am training for the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still struggle with Crohn’s disease daily and have a lot of things I have to overcome along with that,” she said. “I look forward to being able to grow that platform and hopefully be another wonderful story to share at the Olympics this summer, and be able inspire so many young kids, not only with Crohn’s disease, but with any chronic illness, and show them they can accomplish so much and should never change their dreams.”

Baker didn’t change her dream, and that determination led her to qualify for the Olympics in the backstroke.
She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 13, as she was beginning to show symptoms and struggle with those. She relied on her family more than she knew at the time, something she has fully appreciated looking back, especially with all of the organization and assertiveness she has had to deal with as an adult, being on top of her situation with Crohn’s as well as her life outside the water, especially when a student at Cal when she became an NCAA champion.

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Kathleen Baker. Photo Courtesy: Christopher Anderson/Lilly

“I have had it for 11 years, which is a long time. It made me grow up quicker than most kids. I knew everything about my medicines, it started at a young age. I was fortunate to go to UNC Hospital, and they have such a great transition and people teaching you things so that when you transfer from pediatrics to being an adult, you understand everything, the medication, so you are not just living in the dark,” Baker said.

“At 24, I live across the country from my family and my health is completely in my own control. I make all of my own doctor’s appointments, have to schedule rides when I get procedures done, I have to make sure I am getting my labs done every eight weeks. My mom is not there to remind me to go to the doctor.”

FAMILY TIES

All of that organization was done by Kathleen’s mother, Kimberly Baker, when Kathleen was first diagnosed.

“My family is a huge support system and my mom was the one taking me to most of my appointments. After being diagnosed, I was going to appointments every couple of weeks, and I would get infusions every five weeks. My mom would take the day off of work and sit with me for six hours while I got medicine to help me be normal,” Kathleen Baker said.

“Knowing how much time she took, driving me an hour and a half to Chapel Hill for appointments and all that comes with having a kid with a chronic disease. It is so hard on me, but it was hard on my family. My dad and sister were so supportive and amazing. I am so fortunate that I have an amazing family and that my mom was so on top of it. I got diagnosed with Crohn’s pretty early in the grand scheme of things once I started showing symptoms. That was because my mom knew there was something wrong and told the doctors, and sure enough, I had Crohn’s disease all the way from my esophagus to my intestines. Moms typically know more about you than you know about yourself. I definitely miss having her close by.”

There was something very real and bond-strengthening about their hours spent in the car or at doctor’s offices and hospitals together.

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Kathleen Baker. Photo Courtesy: Christopher Anderson/Lilly

“At the same time, with something so terrible to have, it did allow me to have more time with my family, especially my mom. I am so close with my mom. I still talk to her every single day,” Baker said.

“She is one of my biggest role models as an amazing mom, but also amazing woman. She was able to balance her own career with family and being at every single swim meet and doctor’s appointment. I am so fortunate to have that. Looking back on those memories, we laugh at some traditions we had, going to the same lunch spot every single appointment (for years). We made the most of it and definitely had some good memories in there.”

Now, Baker is showing her support for her mom, who suffers from severe migraine headaches. Baker has joined Team Lilly, a prescription medicine sponsor of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC).

“To be a part of this with my mom. I am so proud to be a part of Lilly and raise awareness for the impact of migraines that my mom suffers with is so close to my heart, because not only did she support me with my chronic disease, but she struggles with migraines and how strong she is,” Baker said. “She never really let that affect her role of being my mom. She is so tough. To be a part of this with her is amazing.”

CROHN’S AND COVID

Now, Baker is aiming to make a second Olympic team in a year full of adversity for the entire world.

She said her adversity with Crohn’s has helped her mentally throughout the pandemic.

“I feel like having Crohn’s has taken me out of the water for big chunks of time throughout my life. I have a huge appreciation for the sport and it is an attitude that a lot of people don’t get until they experience some adversity,” she said. “COVID gave everyone that adversity and it gave everyone a sense of gratitude. That is something that I had, but it grew even more. To be at practice and feel that gratitude that you are practicing, knowing it could be taken away at any moment — and for me it could be taken away because of Crohn’s or COVID-19 — having that is huge.”

Baker has also seen some of her best success after not being in the water as much when she broke a world record in the 100 backstroke in 2018.

“I also have been out of the water for seven weeks at a time then broken a world record a half year later, so I know that I am able to come back from being out of the water and that my body can handle that,” Baker said. “I am fortunate that I have experienced that.”

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Photo Courtesy: Christopher Anderson/Lilly

During COVID-19 protocols, Baker and her Team Elite group found themselves training in backyard pools, or the Pacific Ocean, or out of the water altogether at times.

“I am fortunate that David Marsh is my coach. He is really good at finding creative ways for us to stay in shape,” she said. “I was just trying to stay positive and stay in shape, while having some fun.”

ON TO THE TRIALS

Kathleen Baker was one of the younger swimmers to make the Olympic team in 2016, the same age that Regan Smith, who broke Baker’s world record in the 100 backstroke at the 2019 World Championships, is now.

Baker is now a professional swimmer and veteran on Team USA, giving her somewhat of a different outlook heading into trials.

“The stress, which is a positive stress, leading into trials because I care so much and want to make the Olympic team,” she said. “I feel like in 2016, it was a frantic stress. I had to pull things together after having some health issues. I feel a lot more confident this time around. I am really looking forward to racing, and using the experience I have racing in the most high-pressure environments — trials, Olympics, worlds, you name it — to my advantage. Trials is a swim meet with emotion multiplied by 100. Even if it is not your own emotion, people around you are having their dreams made and having their dreams crushed. You have to know how to manage that external environment.”

And Baker will be managing that as a veteran with a new group of teenagers — as well as other veterans — aiming for the same goal.

“I think it is exciting. You always want USA Swimming as a whole to get better. There are always going to be young kids right behind you, and for me, it is about being a good role model for them. But at the same time, I want to stay in my own lane. I am going to trials to race to the best of my ability. I want to go best times and make the Olympic team, so what I need to do is make sure I am doing everything I can,” she said. “You can really tire yourself out worrying about every single person coming up behind you. Right now, it is staying in my same lane. I felt like I was so old at 19, so it is funny to look back and know Regan Smith is 19 now. (It is about) using the competition in a positive way.”

BUILDING A LEGACY

Baker has done more than most in the pool, but it is not her accomplishments that have made a lasting impression over the years.
It is what she has done with that platform.

“I am just so proud that I am 24 and I still love swimming the way I did when I was 8. That is pretty amazing to say. I am proud to have broken a world record and gone to the Olympics, while being able to share my story with Crohn’s disease,” Kathleen Baker said. “I think that having this platform of being an elite athlete has been amazing for me to share my story and inspire so many kids around the world who struggle with anything. I am happy to be that voice.”

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Wemme Walls

    What a marvelous story and such a tribute to those who have supported Kathleen.