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By David Rieder.
Kathleen Baker arrived at Cal in the fall of 2015 as already a World Championships finalist in the 100 backstroke. She arrived in Berkeley a high-profile recruit, a legitimate contender to fill the massive void left by Missy Franklin’s departure to the professional ranks.
But things did not click right away for Baker within the college ranks. She finished second in the 200 IM at the NCAA championships her freshman year, but she found herself outside of the top-eight in both backstroke events.
A full 364 days after she finished up her last NCAA championships in Atlanta, much has changed for Baker: She has two Olympic medals to her name and, now, three individual NCAA titles.
First, Baker finally got the better of Ella Eastin in the 200 IM, touching the wall more than a half-second ahead of her rival in 1:51.69 and finishing only four hundredths of a second off the American record. Next up, she led off Cal’s 400 medley relay in 49.80, the second-fastest time in history.
Her teammates, apparently, held the lead and touched the wall first. But the results were unofficial, and a few moments later came the dreaded news: There had been a false start, and the Bears were out 40 points and a national championship.
But that night, Baker was as upbeat as ever, refusing to let the setback ruin her meet or her team’s.
“It happens to everyone. It just fuels us for tomorrow,” she said after the DQ. “I think it is a little bit of a low, but we overall had a really good night.”
Indeed, Baker came back without missing a step. She made quick work of fellow Olympian Olivia Smoliga and American record-holder Ally Howe before leading Cal to redemption and a wire-to-wire victory in the 200 medley relay.
Finally, she capped off her meet with a dominant victory in the 200 back. While a touch off the 1:48.33 she swam to win the event at the Pac-12 championships, her time of 1:48.44 was still faster than any other swimmer besides Elizabeth Pelton and Franklin.
So while Howe, Simone Manuel, Eastin and Lilly King all broke American records over the course of the weekend, no one besides Baker won three individual events outright. The swimmer of the meet honor was deservedly hers.
So it figures that the last thing Baker wanted to talk about was last year. She nodded and smiled as fellow Bears sophomore Katie McLaughlin, fresh off a second-place finish in the 200 fly, declared that “whatever happened last year is over.”
Baker raved about all that changed for her Bears this season, insisting that the team, above all, was the priority.
“We had really great leadership this year. Having Ian [Walsh] come in and be our assistant coach was incredible, and I think overall we just went out there, and instead of worrying about our times, we got our hands on the wall,” Baker said.
Still, how can a swimmer already at an elite level make the improvements Baker has over the span of 12 months? In the 200 back, for instance, Baker went from a 1:52.15 at the 2016 NCAA championships to 1:48.44 this weekend in Indianapolis. Baker admitted that she believes her fitness has improved considerably during that span, but four seconds’ worth?
A chunk of the improvement came as Baker figured out the essence of short course swimming and a requirement for excellence at the NCAA level: turns.
“I think personally for me it’s just really focusing on the walls,” she said. “Usually when I swim a 100 back long course, there is one turn, and now I have seven in a 200 back. I think that’s where I can make my big improvements.”
But four seconds in a 200? No, that’s more than figuring out turns. As McLaughlin explained, Baker figured out how to race—and win.
“[Kathleen] is literally a star,” McLaughlin said. “When she races, I get so nervous and kick my own legs to give a boost. It doesn’t work. It’s exciting seeing her get to race. I have so much confidence in her.”
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.