Olympic Gold Medalist Kathleen Baker Shares About Swimming with Crohn’s Disease

Photo Courtesy: Chuckarelei / Pac-12

By Brie Harnden, Swimming World College Intern.

Over the past few years, rising Cal senior and SwimMac Team Elite member Kathleen Baker has established herself as one of the strongest swimmers for Team USA. Her Olympic medals, NCAA championship titles and American records are incredible on their own, but the feat is made even more impressive due to her struggle with chronic illness.

Baker suffers from Crohn’s disease: a debilitating, incurable, lifelong inflammation and scarring of the the digestive tract. This National Teamer offers a much-needed success story for the Crohn’s community and is a source of hope and inspiration to other swimmers struggling with chronic illness.

kathleen-baker-rio-podium

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Swimming World: How does having a chronic digestive condition affect your nutrition as an elite athlete?

Baker: It’s a daily struggle for me. Crohn’s is specific for each person on what foods work for them. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what helps me stay healthy and what is easy on my stomach. When I’m feeling healthy, I can push the limits on what foods I eat, such as nuts, raw fruits and vegetables.

If I have a flare, it takes me back a step. I’m on a more bland diet such as chicken and rice. It’s hard to get nutrients when you’re not feeling well. I drink things such as Ensure, because it has a lot of calories and nutrients that can replace what I’m not getting from fruits and vegetables.

SW: Your Crohn’s diagnosis was made public during your gold and silver medal performances at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Why did you wait until this moment to speak publicly about it?

Baker: When I was diagnosed, I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. I was given medications and was told they would work. However, that wasn’t my case. It ended up becoming much more significant in my life, and I was spending every month getting an infusion in the hospital.

I didn’t want to be known as “Kathleen, the swimmer with Crohn’s.” I wanted to pave own way as just “Kathleen.” As I got older, I knew that if I were to make a team – such as the Olympic team – I definitely wanted my story to come out because I struggled not having a lot of high-level athletes to look up to.

I wanted to be a story where something positive comes up when people Google “athletes with Crohn’s disease.” I really felt that [the Olympics] was the right opportunity for me and was going make a difference!

kathleen-baker-start-100bk-olympics-semifinals

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

SW: Despite the difficulties of Crohn’s, you’ve continued to thrive at Cal and break American records as your career has progressed. Do you have to make any modifications in your daily life to allow you to stay healthy and swim fast?

Baker: I make a lot of daily modifications to keep me at my healthiest. When I was younger, I tried to keep everything the same as before my diagnosis, but that’s not possible. I can’t switch out my medications if some don’t work – there aren’t many available. My doctors and I talked about how to get the most of the medications I do have available.

I mostly swim one practice a day, along with doing some work outside of the water. It’s important to work with my coaches, both Teri McKeever at Cal, and David Marsh, the Olympic coach who I grew up swimming with. They know when it’s time to back off. I’m not someone who’s going to say that I need a little more rest. I’m always wanting to push it and I’m always fine until I’m not. It’s usually about catching it before I’m “not okay.” Something I’ve figured out is when I’m pushing really far, even if I feel great, I still need to take a step back.

Also, sleep is huge. I could sleep 12 hours on any night, and that really plays a huge role in [staying healthy]. I think it has helped me stay healthier for longer periods of time, along with modifying the training side of things, because it’s not helpful to be putting my body under such a stress.

kathleen-baker-cal-award-pac-12-championships

Photo Courtesy: Chuckarelei Studios

SW: You’ve become one of the most consistent stars on US international teams over the past few years. How do you keep yourself healthy and focused while dealing with the pressures of international travel and the leadership role that emerges with your rising veteran status on these teams?

Baker: I’m a bit of a germaphobe, so I like to have a lot of hand sanitizer and wipe down all the things I’m going to touch on the plane. For the stress that comes along with swimming internationally, I try to look at it as a positive one. There’s no greater honor than to be on a USA team, which ever one it is. It’s so much fun for me, and I love every aspect of it. As I become more of a leader on the team, it’s something I’ve really enjoyed. I try to not let in any negative thoughts or get overwhelmed by the pressure. I love pressure; I use it as a motivation. I don’t let it weigh me down.

SW: What resources are available for you and other athletes with chronic illnesses at Cal and from USA Swimming?

Baker: I have an amazing trainer at Cal who is on top of everything. She helps me set up my blood work, which I get pretty frequently to check all of my levels for Crohn’s disease. It makes it super easy to be on campus and get a blood draw, then walk straight to class. I’m working with the really great doctors at Cal as well. It’s very easy to get care; we have a doctor just for our team.

USA Swimming is a huge support too. We have a great nutritionist who is available any time you need her. She’s really on top of everything and makes sure that anyone who has any type of dietary restriction is covered. She makes sure that we have access to the right foods in different countries.

The team doctors for USA Swimming are amazing. I’ve known a lot of them for many years, and they’re great at helping me make sure my medications are available in a  different country. USA Swimming also offers the ability to get blood work checked, which is super important for any swimmer – especially one with an illness who can have a lot of nutritional deficiencies. 

kathleen baker

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

SW: What does it mean to have the opportunity to represent the Crohn’s community and prove that an illness does not need to define your life?

Baker: It means the absolute world to me. Just this past weekend, I did a Crohn’s and Colitis walk. A parent of a Crohn’s patient came up to me. Their son had just been diagnosed – he’s nine years old – and they told me that it’s so good to see someone thriving and able to accomplish things who used to be a pediatric patient. That’s exactly what I want to be!

I want to raise awareness and be involved more with the Crohn’s and Colitis foundation. I also want not only for kids but also for parents to know that it is possible to thrive in the hard times. It’s horrible when you’re diagnosed or when you’re not in remission. It’s a really hard time, but know that people do get out of it and do really great things! I think it’s great for me to be able to be a role model.

Kathleen Baker- Crohn's

Photo Courtesy: Kathleen Baker

SW: How have you been able to turn having a chronic illness into an advantage?

Baker: From the minute I was diagnosed, I’ve had a whole new appreciation for swimming. I realized it’s something that can be taken away. One of my first thoughts after diagnosis was that my swimming career was going to be taken away.

I’ve had a lot of faith throughout my whole swimming career, and it’s allowed me to really appreciate every moment and enjoy the process. I think that’s what has made me succeed in the sport: I love it so much, and I think of it as a gift.

SW: What advice would you give to a swimmer struggling with a chronic illness?

Baker: It’s super important to surround yourself with great doctors who won’t just think of you as any other patient. Every kid’s situation is different, so your doctor really needs to look at the whole you. It’s great having parents and coaches who will never ever doubt your dreams because of a chronic illness. I’m so lucky I’ve been able to have all of that, and no matter what stage of life I’m in, no one has ever told me I couldn’t do something. A lot of it is not only believing in yourself but also surrounding yourself with people who believe in you and support you just the same.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

7 Comments

7 comments

  1. avatar
    Rob

    Very inspiring. Great interview.

    • Ben Anngow

      Bloody good read actually

  2. avatar

    Kathleen Baker is an inspiration and motivation for all.

Author: Brie Harnden

avatar
Brie Harnden is a rising freshman swimmer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she plans on majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology. When she's not swimming, you can find her walking her three dogs or experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen.

Current Swimming World Issue


Trouble Viewing on Smart Phones, Tablets or iPads? Click Here