Olympic champion Kathleen Baker: I did not want to be known as that sick kid

After being diagnosed with Crohn's Disease aged 12, find out how the American swimming prodigy battled weight loss, nausea, and even broken ribs to win Olympic gold at Rio 2016.
By Andrew Binner

Swimming sensation Kathleen Baker was just 12 when she was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease.

The chronic bowl condition can cause abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, and weight loss that would greatly affect any individual’s way of life, but for an aquatic prodigy in North Carolina the blow was even greater.

"I went from breaking national age group records at 12 to not being able to do a whole practice due to straight up exhaustion and symptoms I was having," Baker told popsugar.

Baker’s weight started to drop off, despite her mother’s best efforts at replacing the lost calories with a constant supply of cheeseburgers and cake.

"I love swimming more than anything in this world, and I just couldn't comprehend why I deserved to have something like this, where I felt like my swimming was going to be taken away from me," she continued.

After her diagnosis in 2010, Baker initially tried to hide her illness out of embarrassment, putting her weight problems down to a stomach issue.

“I didn’t want to be known as that sick kid,” the 2018 Pan Pacific gold medallist told NY Times.

Finding a doctor who believed in her

However, all was not lost.

The American eventually found a doctor willing to believe that she was more than ‘just Kathleen with Crohn's disease’, and would help her manage the illness in a way that would enable her to realise her Olympic ambitions.

This in turn helped her live the life she wanted outside of the pool as well, and live a normal teenage life.

But just when Baker appeared to have her condition under control, another complication arose. Her medical drug infusions from the hospital ceased to be effective. So she switched to a new medication - the one that she uses to this day - involving self-administered bi-weekly injections to the abdomen.

"That's a very big deal as a Crohn's patient,” she revealed.

"There are not a million medications in the pipeline and, at 17, I'd already burned through a couple of them. These are heavy-duty drugs.”

Although this was far from ideal, it allowed Baker to pursue her swimming goals.

Despite being prone to Chron’s flare-ups such as stomach cramps and nausea, her coaches and parents still struggled to limit her time in the pool such was her determination to succeed.

Gaining international recognition

Eventually Baker started climbing the ranks of competitive swimming, winning four medals at the 2013 world junior championships, and enrolling at the University of California.

While her teammates would typically swim 10 times a week, her training regime was limited to seven.

"I realised that it doesn't really matter how hard I'm going to train if I'm not healthy.

“All that matters is me being healthy, and if that means doing two less swim practices a week than everyone else, then that's what I'm going to have to do."

It clearly worked for her. A second-place finish in the 200m backstroke at the senior nationals a year later qualified her for the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships and the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia.

Buoyed by her red-hot form heading into the US Olympic trials for Rio 2016, Baker lined up in a star-studded 100m backstroke final including reigning Olympic champion Missy Franklin and former world-record holder Natalie Coughlin. Baker shocked the field to finish second in a blistering 59.29 seconds, sealing her place on the plane just a fingertip behind Olivia Smoliga.

Heading into the Games, rumours of the super bacteria in Rio’s water were hardly ideal for a Crohn's sufferer.

But she was an expert by then in ensuring she was on top of her medication, and was rewarded with a gold medal as part of the 4x100m medley relay team, and an individual silver in the 100m backstroke.

“My normal is not someone else's," she said of her journey competing with Chron’s. “My path has been amazing, and hopefully it continues going well."

The 23-year-old has truly provided an inspiring example to fellow sufferers, showing them that the disease doesn’t have to be a reason for them to stop chasing their dreams.

Struggles in this Olympic cycle

Baker backed up her Olympic performance with three more medals at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, winning the same two events and adding a bronze in the 200m backstroke.

In 2018, she broke the 100m backstroke world record at the US Swimming Championships, lowering the mark to 58 seconds. The sky was now her limit.

But she was to come crashing back down to earth in 2019. In the run up to the FINA world championships in Gwangju, Korea, Baker suffered illness and injury that made her presence at the event a victory in itself.

In the run up to the champs she contracted the flu, which then developed into pneumonia. Fits of coughing ensued and eventually a pain developed down her right side. A broken rib. Unbelievably, the break occurred due to the strength of her core, meaning her coughs are essentially super-charged.

Unsurprisingly she didn’t win any medals and to compound matters, her world record was broken by compatriot Regan Smith at the event.

State of play now

Fast-forward to 2020 and Baker, like all other swimmers around the world, has had to adapt her training regime during the coronavirus lockdown.

The pool sessions have been temporarily replaced by isolated hikes or swimming in the ocean, while Zumba classes and TikTok dances have provided the fun.

But the goal remains the same: Baker wants to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in more than one event.

"I'm using this time to really focus on some of my weaknesses out of the water and being creative when I get a chance to train in the water," she said. "I am trying to focus on the little details right now because I'm not getting huge blocks of aerobic training in."

Perhaps the postponement was a blessing in disguise for Baker, who will be hoping to return to full fitness come 2021. But before that happens, with two world-record breakers in the same event, the 100m backstroke at the US trials is set to be a mouth-watering spectacle.