By Nelson Helm, Swimming World College Intern
The Start of Something Special
Two years, four months, 19 days, eight hours and eight minutes. No, this isn’t the countdown to the 2016 Olympics in Rio. It’s all that separates two sisters who share a sport but have taken different paths.
Rachel Baker, a sophomore at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, is the first child of Norris and Kimberley Baker. Rachel was born in 1994, two years, four months, 19 days, eight hours and eight minutes before her more famous sister, Kathleen Baker.
“[Kathleen] always says ‘It’s not fair, I have never lived without you,’” Rachel said. “But I have lived that long without her!”
The path to swimming for the two sisters is similar to how most siblings begin sports: the older child begins a sport and the younger child follows.
“Rachel started swimming before me and I just wanted to do what she was doing,” Kathleen said.
But paths began to diverge for the two sisters.
“She was automatically better than me,” Rachel said laughing.
After the two sisters began swimming year round for Star Aquatics, the two sisters began to spend more time with each other.
“Kathleen and I spent every second of every day together,” Rachel said. “We had the same swim friends, which was fun. I would also drive her to and from school and practice.”
As Kathleen’s swim career began taking off, Rachel found it hard because “people forgot that I [also] swam.”
“Even in summer league meets, they would say ‘Oh my God, you’re Kathleen Baker’s sister?!’” Rachel said. “I’ve grown out of it though.”
Rachel and Kathleen’s relationship, however, did not change as the two sisters’ swimming careers did.
“Swimming brings families pretty close,” Kathleen said. “We would wake up Saturday mornings and drive together [to the swim meet] and would stay in one room. Our dinner table conversations would be about swimming.”
The dinner table conversations didn’t stop when Kathleen moved to Charlotte to train with SwimMac or when Rachel began college. Rachel said that Kathleen calls her “at least once a day” and talks to her about swimming, among other things.
“I can understand what she is going through,” Rachel said. “She will call and tell me what she is holding [at practice] and I can sympathize and empathize.”
A Summer to Remember
After Rachel’s first year at college came to a close, the sisters’ paths diverged once again. Rachel was to spend her summer at Camp Greystone in the rural mountains of North Carolina, away from the rest of the Baker clan.
Part of the job description for Rachel was to be off the grid for weeks on end.
As her sister began competing at Nationals in Irvine, California, Rachel was unable to keep up with how the youngest Baker was doing. When Kathleen touched second in the 200 backstroke behind soon-to-be training partner Missy Franklin, Rachel was unaware.
It wasn’t until the next day, when she was able to access her phone, did she see a text from her mom saying ‘We are going to Australia!’.
“I started crying,” Rachel said. “I called [Kathleen] crying.”
Rachel “understood how much it meant to me,” Kathleen said.
Big sister, however, was not surprised that Kathleen had made the team.
“To me, it was the normal,” she said. “Kathleen would say, ‘I am going to win eight Olympic gold medals like Michael Phelps.’ I always believed she could do it.”
As the summer weeks came to a close, the Baker family all traveled to Gold Coast, Australia to watch Kathleen compete against the world’s best. Rachel said that she got more nervous for her sister’s races than her own because she knows how much “is on the line for her and how much she cares.”
“Watching her at [Olympic] Trials or Pan Pacs, they are just such a big meets,” Rachel said. “I can put myself in her shoes and understand how nervous she is or could be. I just want her to do well.”
Kathleen enjoyed having her family at the meet because she was able to see them after her races.
“When you are done with racing, you can go in the stands and see your family,” she said. “Not everyone has that. It means a lot that they came to watch me, especially Rachel, because it was her last couple of weeks of summer and she spent it at a rainy swim meet.”
When it came time for Kathleen to make a college decision, Rachel was right there for every step of the way. Coaches would come to the Baker’s apartment in Charlotte and the older Baker would be right in the room with her, listening to everything that they had to say.
“She called me one night [while I was at school] and said ‘Rachel, can’t you just do it for me?’ It was one in the morning and I was in bed, but I still answered,” Rachel said.
Both sisters defined themselves as the other’s “best friend.” Rachel “will always be there to answer calls at one in the morning,” Kathleen said. But, Rachel and Kathleen both agree they are polar opposites.
“I am a lot more competitive,” Kathleen said. “I am used to racing. Even if it was pushing the elevator button first, I had to win. Rach is more laid back.”
The Baker sisters found areas where the other sister excelled in personality-wise that they brought in to their own. For Rachel, it was Kathleen’s toughness.
“She has overcome, and continues to overcome, so much on an everyday basis,” Rachel said. “She doesn’t let anything derail her from her dreams and I really respect that.”
Kathleen felt that Rachel’s kind and supportive personality provided the younger sister with comfort.
“She would defend an ax murderer,” Kathleen said. “She has always been that way.”
But, for the sisters who will both swim collegiately next year, Rachel never wanted to be defined by swimming, while Kathleen did.
“Swimming means very different things to the both of us,” Rachel said. “Swimming for her is her life—she has given things up for it. Swimming for me is an outlet. But it is what connects us. We both have gotten so much out of it.”