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Kathleen Baker Refuses to Let Crohn’s Disease Interfere with Swimming Goals

“I’m really lucky that I have had such amazing people in my life. I couldn’t have done it without a 1,000-people support system.”

Kathleen Baker proclaimed the achievement of her dream after her morning swim at the 2016 Rio Olympics on Aug. 8 before the 100-meter backstroke finals.

“I accomplished everything I wanted,” Baker recalled telling her parents. “To make the Olympics and go to a final; I’m grateful, and anything I accomplish is icing on the cake.”

Even qualifying for the finals wasn’t a given.

Baker placed a disappointing 13th in the 100-meter backstroke at the NCAA championship in March and was ranked 14th in the world heading into the Olympics. The Olympic final featured only eight spots.

But Baker had addressed some technical issues, refined her stroke and gained strength.

She posted her best time ever (58.84) in the qualifying round and semifinal then surprisingly led most of the final until an explosive finish from one of the world’s most versatile swimmers, Katinka Hosszú of Hungary. Still, Baker’s time of 58.75 was once again a personal best and, more importantly, enough for the Olympic silver medal.

“It was surreal,” said Baker, 21, who on Sunday at the Phillips 66 National Championships broke the world record in the 100-meter backstroke with a time of 58 seconds.  “It was a little bit of a surprise to me, my coaches, my family. I had goals, but …”

Truly, no one saw Baker coming because placing, tapering and even competing were the least of her challenges.

The Diagnosis

As an 11-year-old, Baker was captivated by the 2008 Beijing Olympics. That her favorite sport was among the Games’ most popular didn’t temper her passion. She would watch in her family room in Winston-Salem, N.C., for as long as her parents allowed.

She loved everything about swimming: Learning the strokes in the pool, lifting weights outside the pool and the buzz at a meet.

“If I could live at a swim meet,” she said, “I would. It’s so much fun!”

But when she was 12 years old, Baker started to struggle with stomach pains. Doctors couldn’t diagnose the problem, and Baker, despite a daily cheeseburger, started to lose weight.

“I was in denial. I was like, ‘Everything will be OK,’ ” Baker recalled. “ ‘Nothing is wrong with me.’ ”

After more tests, doctors determined Baker had Crohn’s, a chronic, inflammatory bowel disease. When active, the symptoms can include abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue and weight loss. About 700,000 Americans have Crohn’s, according to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.

Baker learned this news shortly after her 13th birthday.

“I immediately Googled it,” Baker said, “and a lot of terrible things came up, with significant surgeries. I was devastated.”

Baker had another fear.

“Besides my family,” she said, “my biggest love in the world was swimming, and I thought that was going to be taken away from me.”

The doctors, though, provided hope, and her parents, coaches and friends rallied around her.

“They always believed in my dreams,” Baker said, “and that’s what really helped me.”

Baker returned to the pool, although it was difficult to manage her medication and maintain her energy level. For instance, she couldn’t spend hours at the beach then practice. Still, swimming was her outlet.

Two practices sessions in one day were no longer doable, and Baker had to be extra attentive about getting sick because she was on immune-suppressing drugs. A sanitary bottle is never too far from her.

Her morning routine includes drinking water, to stay hydrated, taking pills, eating breakfast and, sometimes, giving herself an injection, something she’s done herself since she was 17. Baker sleeps upwards of 12 hours a night, and, on days that include a practice and weightlifting, she may take a two- to four-hour nap.

“For me, sleep is huge,” Baker said. “How much sleep plays into keeping me healthy.”

Baker’s coaches tailored a schedule to suit her.

They knew Baker was special.

“She is not 6-foot-3, she does not have a stroke that is beyond what other swimmers can do technically,” acclaimed swimming coach David Marsh told NBC Olympics about Baker. “Her gift is that unceasing eagerness. Every swimmer has days when they show up at the pool feeling sluggish or cranky or generally uninterested — but not Kathleen.”

Gold medalist Kathleen Baker, Lilly King, Dana Vollmer and Simone Manuel (USA) during Women's 4 Ã? 100m medley relay of the Rio 2016 Olympics Games
Gold medalist Kathleen Baker, Lilly King, Dana Vollmer and Simone Manuel (USA) during Women's 4x100m medley relay of the Rio 2016 Olympics Games.

More Icing

The Olympic silver medal wasn’t the last of the hardware Baker collected in Rio. Five days later, Baker struck gold as part of the U.S. 400-meter medley relay team.

Baker revealed in the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, as she stood on the podium alongside her U.S. teammates.

“That was incredible. To hear the National Anthem and hear the crowd cheer for us is something I will never be able to recreate,” Baker said. “I just loved every moment. I wished I could have worn a GoPro.”

In those moments, though, Baker thought of her nurses, teachers and coaches who accommodated her dream.

“I’m really lucky that I have had such amazing people in my life,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without a 1,000-people support system.”

Baker also thought of the young kids she’d met who were battling chronic diseases. At an event in San Diego, the parent of a 9-year-old boy with Crohn’s needing surgery had a message for her.

“‘It's great to have someone for him to look up to,’ “ Baker recalled. “Sometimes you think, ‘I wish my life was this way or that way.’ But I’m so grateful to be able to do so much and have Crohn’s disease at the same time.

“It’s been a great opportunity to use this as a platform to show young kids that you can accomplish anything, even if you have a chronic disease.”

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Swimming

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2016 Summer Olympics, Issues & Advice