Sophomore Golden Bears Bilquist, Baker and McLaughlin Hitting Their Stride

Photo Courtesy: Matt Rubel of Rubel Photograph

By David Rieder.

In the fall of 2015, a trio of highly-touted 18-year-olds arrived in Berkeley, Calif., with plenty already accomplished and bright futures in swimming ahead of them. But in March, only two of them were on deck at the women’s NCAA championships in Atlanta.

One month before they got to school, Kathleen Baker had swum in the World Championship final in the 100 back. Katie McLaughlin had done the same in the 200 fly, and later that same night she had provided a key leg on a World title-winning 800 free relay. Amy Bilquist had dealt with injuries that summer but had won two golds at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships in 2014.

But at NCAAs, where Baker finished second in the 200 IM and Bilquist made the final in both backstroke events, McLaughlin was absent.

After suffering a neck injury during the Golden Bears’ training trip in Hawaii, McLaughlin’s freshman season was derailed. She was out of the water for six weeks and hardly trained before competing in a limited schedule of events at the Pac-12 championships. She did not swim nearly fast enough to qualify for NCAAs.

“It was pretty hard to watch, not being able to be there, but it happens, and there’s nothing I could do,” McLaughlin said in May.

But through the challenging recovery phase, McLaughlin had her teammates there for support—and to laugh with her.

When the 2016 spring semester began, McLaughlin showed up on campus in her neck brace, which she said “wasn’t the most flattering thing on Earth.” She and Bilquist had a class together that semester, and Bilquist was watching on day one as McLaughlin introduced herself to a room full of stunned classmates staring at the brace.

“I’m just trying to not laugh,” Bilquist said. “So bad, but she treated it like it was funny. We were able to joke about it early on, which was nice. I think Katie’s just such a strong person. Who is in a neck brace and is laughing about it three days after they have it on?”

But after her disappointing meet at Pac-12s, McLaughlin realized that she needed to put more attention into physical therapy, so she left Berkeley and headed home to Southern California. And then when the semester ended, Baker was gone, too, as she went back to Charlotte to swim with SwimMAC’s Team Elite for her final preparations for Olympic Trials.

She and Bilquist would be reunited under the most intense of circumstances: in the 100 back final at Olympic Trials. It was the best shot for both to make their first Olympic team.

Baker went out fast, flipping first at the halfway point, and she hung on to finish second in 59.29. Bilquist closed quickly but finished just behind in 59.37, eight one-hundreths behind Baker.

Third place, the most painful finish in the sport.

But as tough as the result was to digest, it did not take long for Bilquist to be overjoyed for her good friend, who went on to capture the Olympic silver medal in the event.

“I would say it’s tougher just getting third than whoever you get third to,” Bilquist said. “Kathleen works her butt off, and I see her train day in and day out, so I couldn’t be more happy or proud of her. She went on to kick some serious butt in Rio. I was so proud of her. It’s hard getting third, but I’m proud of who I got third to.”

Down below the arena, McLaughlin had just secured her spot in the final of the 200 free and was giddy while waiting outside the mixed zone to embrace Baker. But Baker’s success would be the highlight of the meet for McLaughlin—over the next two days, she finished eighth in the 200 free and sixth in the 200 fly.

After missing so much time in training, McLaughlin knew she was facing an uphill battle to make the Olympic team, but that did not make her results any less agonizing.

“It was definitely a challenge, but now that we’re pretty far out of it, I’m taking it as motivation,” she said. “I don’t want to let that happen again.”

So far, so good. McLaughlin has joined Bilquist and Baker as key contributors in the Bears’ impressive start, which 5-1 dual meet record and a team victory at the Georgia Fall Invitational. Outside of the pool, the three live in a house together in Berkeley, and Bilquist called the class of five sophomore swimmers “closer this year than ever.”

“We kind of make fun of each other a little bit—in a good way,” McLaughlin said. “We always yell at Jenna [Campbell], one of our other [sophomore] teammates. Just cause.”

In the Bears’ dual meet Saturday against Arizona State, Bilquist picked up wins in the 100 and 200 free, Baker won both backstroke events, and McLaughlin finished first in the 200 fly and 500 free.

Yes, the 500 free.

“It’s different, but it’s okay. Someone’s gotta do it!” McLaughlin said. “We have so many people that can do 100 fly, 200 free, everything else. If I have to do the 500, it’s okay. Literally, someone’s gotta do it.”

“And someone’s gotta count for you!” Bilquist chimed in after handling those duties against ASU.

The Bears still have home meets against USC and Bay Area rival Stanford before heading to the Pac-12 championships and then the NCAA championships. To improve on last year’s third-place finish when they get to Indianapolis in March, they will need big performances from all three sophomores.

Even though Baker and Bilquist were at the NCAA meet last year, neither performed up to their standards. Baker missed the championship finals in both backstroke events, and Bilquist swam considerably slower than she had at Pac-12s.

Like McLaughlin, both Baker and Bilquist had their health issues along the way. Baker revealed in July that she has battled Crohn’s Disease for years, and Bilquist was also sick for much of the spring, which she thinks took away her mental edge going into NCAAs. She won’t let that happen again.

“This year, I want to go into NCAAs with a confidence that whatever’s going to happen is going to happen, and I’m going to try my best, and I’m going to do my best for the team,” Bilquist said. “I don’t want to negatively influence the team in any way, so no matter how I swim I’m going to try to be a positive figure.”

As for McLaughlin, she thinks that missing last year will make this experience even more special.

“Going into last year, I figured, ‘Oh, making NCAAs won’t be too much of a problem,’” she said. “You have to earn your spot there, and I think it’s really going to be a good experience that I can enjoy my teammates and have fun with it rather than be like, ‘I have to do this. I have to do that. This is what I did last year.’ I think it’s kind of a blessing in a way that I have no expectations going in.”

“I think it added perspective for Katie and our class in general,” Bilquist said. “It was weird—Kathleen and I being there and Katie not being there—that it really makes us not take for granted any meets. It’s going to be a different vibe this year. It’s going to be a lot of positive energy.”

Year one at Cal was not without its bumps for the three sophomores, but through adversity they gained plenty—as swimmers, as teammates and as friends. And because of all that, the Golden Bears will be better off in year two.

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

1 comment

  1. avatar

    Well written, David.