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Kathleen Baker might be the next great backstroker in the world

Two-time Olympic medalist and NCAA title winner Kathleen Baker is becoming one of the best backstrokers in the world. But it took an incentive from her mom to get the Cal Bear into the pool in the first place.

“My mom wouldn’t let me go off the diving board unless I swam,” Baker said. “So if I could swim, then I could go off the diving board. I then started swimming over the summer because my sister did it.”

Once she started swimming, Baker fell in love with the sport and began swimming year-round at age 8. “I love everything about it,” said the 20-year-old Baker, who hails from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Going to practice, racing, that feeling of nervousness and excitement at the block. It’s the only time I feel like that in my life. Before a race, I just have to tell myself to relax and go through the little details of it and try to enjoy it.”

Then, right before her 10th birthday, Baker was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that can’t be cured. She continued to train despite the side effects, though she often had to limit her time in the pool. Still, that didn’t stop her ascent.

These days, Baker is a household name in the USA Swimming world. After missing out on the London Olympics in 2012, Baker qualified for her first Olympic Games in 2016. In Rio de Janeiro, Baker earned her first Olympic medal by placing second in the 100m backstroke. Swimming the backstroke leg of the women’s 4x100m medley relay, Baker won her first Olympic gold medal.

Having the opportunity to stand on the podium and hear the national anthem is something that has stuck with Baker from the Olympics. “It’s one of the best feelings you’ll ever feel,” Baker said. “You get to stand up there with some of the best women in the world.”

Many of those women Baker speaks of are her teammates from Team USA and fellow stars on the collegiate level. With the likes of Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, Lilly King, Mallory Comerford, and several others already with medals on the international stage, Baker acknowledged that this young core of female swimmers is a pretty special group.

“We’re all still in college and it’s pretty amazing to see the success we’ve already had the international level,” Baker said. “I think the best has yet to come.”

Baker continued her success on the international level this past summer at the FINA World Championships in Budapest, where she claimed the silver again in the 100m back. She followed that up with a bronze medal finish in the 200m back and a first-place finish again in the 4x100m medley relay that captured the gold and set a world record. Baker swam a personal best time in the relay, further establishing herself as one of the best backstrokers in the world.

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But Baker’s triumphs in the pool go beyond what she’s done on the international level. In fact, her success at the collegiate level might be even more impressive.

Swimming for the Cal Bears, Baker won four titles at the NCAA Championships last season as a sophomore. After leading Cal to a second-place finish in the 800-yard freestyle relay, Baker won the 200-yard individual medley (IM) and set a pool record with a time of 1:51.69. She won her second NCAA title by swimming the backstroke leg of the 200-yard medley relay, and then followed that win up with a victory in the 200-yard backstroke. Baker finished off the NCAA Championships by winning the 100-yard backstroke.

Having swum at the collegiate and international level, Baker said that there’s a big difference between both. “At the college level, every single race matters,” Baker said. “How your team does depends upon every race, so it’s very team-oriented. Team USA is still a team, but it’s more individual.”

Entering her junior year at Berkeley, Baker loves swimming for the Bears. “Being able to change with my own age group and representing the school and not just myself is a lot of fun. The support from teammates too is what makes it so great.”

Being a student-athlete is a huge commitment, but Baker said that she’s gotten better at balancing school work and swimming.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at managing school and swimming each year,” Baker said. “But the school and my professors have been really understanding of our commitments. Making a good relationship with my professors has been helpful for when I have to miss class because of a meet.”

In addition, Baker admits that being an Olympian has resulted in more recognition around campus. “I’m definitely recognized more now at Cal, especially among the other athletes,” Baker said. “One of the benefits of going to school here is sometimes I’m sitting next to other Olympians in class.” According to a study conducted by OlympStats.com, Cal sends more athletes to the Olympics than almost any other school.

This year, Baker’s goal is to win more individual titles and set an American record in the pool for the Cal Bears. Not to mention, her ultimate goal is to lead the Bears to a national title and dethrone conference rival Stanford at the top of the swimming world. The College Swimming Coaches Association of America (CSCAA) preseason poll has Cal at No. 2 in the country behind Stanford.

While the 2017-18 swimming season with Cal is Baker’s primary focus right now, the 2020 Summer Olympics are less than three years away and approaching quickly. It shouldn’t be a surprise at all if Baker is standing on the podium again in Tokyo.

 

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