Q&A: Olympic swimmer Kathleen Baker on Overcoming Crohn’s and Tokyo Prep

Kathleen Baker is a two-time Olympic medalist in swimming. At age 19, she captured gold in the 4×100-meter medley relay and silver in the 100-meter backstroke at the Olympic Summer Games in Rio.

The Winston-Salem, North Carolina, native was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 12, but that didn’t stop her from becoming one of the top swimmers in the world, winning three World Championships medals in addition to her Olympic feats.

She credits her mother, Kimberley, with being her main support system even while suffering from migraines. Spurred by her own health situation and that of her mother, Kathleen has partnered with Team Lilly, a prescription medicine sponsor of Team USA.

Now 24, Baker is participating in the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, where she is planning to swim the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, as well as the 200 IM, with the hopes of qualifying for the Tokyo Games.

Sports Section caught up with Baker to discuss overcoming health issues, her Olympic expectations and experiences, and much more.

SPORTS SECTION: How have you juggled having Crohn’s while being an Olympic athlete and living a normal life?

BAKER: Not only is Crohn’s hard when you’re trying to be Kathleen the Olympic athlete, but also Kathleen at various ages: Kathleen who wanted to go to sleepovers or go to school, or right now when I am a young adult and just managing my health on my own and making sure that I’m taking the best care of myself. 

It’s definitely challenging, and there’s not really a day that I don’t think about it. But at the same time, I’m so grateful because it’s given me such an appreciation and a huge amount of gratitude for what I am able to do and overcome.

Why swimming?

I have always loved swimming. I’m from North Carolina. I’ve been a water bug since I was a little baby, and I just love nothing more than playing in the pool. That’s sort of how I got into swimming, and as I’ve grown older, I love the competition, the racing, and the learning that I get from my coach. Every single day is something exciting, and I love that I’m able to control a lot of my destiny with how hard I work and how much I put into something. 

How has COVID affected your training and your physical and mental health?

It was definitely super-difficult last spring and early summer. That was sort of when everything was not normal and my training was off. 

I look back on that, and I’m sort of grateful because I got to do things a lot differently than I’m used to. My training didn’t look the same. It wasn’t as intense, which allowed me to find different outlets that brought me a lot of joy, like swimming in the ocean or going surfing.

And it also challenged me mentally to not only stay in that Olympic mindset for the year before the 2020 Olympics, but again in 2021. 

I’m really excited to show what I’ve been training for, and hopefully I can accomplish my goals this summer.

What are those goals?

First, we have to make the Olympic team. The United States is unbelievably incredible at swimming, especially in a lot of the events I swim in. So I really have to be on my A-game at trials and then hopefully head to Tokyo to win some individual medals.

What can you tell me about the partnership you have with Eli Lilly, and why it’s so important to you?

Knowing firsthand that I have struggled with a chronic illness with Crohn’s disease, I’m so excited to partner with Eli Lilly because it really has shown how many people in this world can accomplish pretty much anything when they have the tools to get there. And Lilly has helped so many people with the right medications to keep them healthy and show their potential. 

It’s raising awareness that there’s so many people going through so many hard things, and there are ways and medications that are able to help — and also just showing how resilient you can truly be.

I know that your mom, Kimberley, has had difficulties with migraines. Has she set an example for you? 

She’s my biggest support system, and I could not be here without her. She’s such an amazing role model, and despite living with migraines, her support never wavered for me.

She was there every step of the way. No matter if she was in pain or suffering, she was able to be there, and that gave me someone really awesome to look up to and sort of channel that when I started to struggle with my health as I got older.

What can you take from your Rio experience this time around?

I think it will be so different from my experience in Rio, not only because of COVID. Something that’s really cool about Olympic experiences is no two are ever the same, no two Olympic Games ever run the same. There will probably be a pretty stark difference with COVID, but honestly, what I took away from 2016 is a lot of confidence, and I hope to bring that to 2021. 

I want to just really enjoy the process and all the moments that aren’t swimming at the Olympics, the ones that mean a lot and you remember so much. My 58- or 57-second race goes by so quickly, and there’s so much in between that is so incredible and provides such lifelong memories that you’re making not only with your teammates, but your best friends, all while representing your country. 

Will it be different this time since your two medals in Rio have raised expectations?

I think it will be somewhat different for me mentally, but at the same time, I always feel a need to prove myself. That never really goes away, which is why I think it’s helped me continuously get better these last five years. I’m not sort of stuck in that, “I’ve done this, I’ve been there and done that.” I want to continue pushing myself and reach goals that I didn’t in 2016.

Can you describe that feeling when they put that medal around your neck, the culmination of all the hours you spend in the pool and the other workouts you do?

It’s super-surreal. It’s an incredible experience to just be standing on a podium, whether you’re getting bronze, silver, or gold. There’s nothing like getting that gold medal, hearing your national anthem, and watching your flag being raised. It’s just filled with this unbelievable experience that you are able to accomplish something so amazing while representing your country. Having that USA flag or wearing the USA flag on my swim cap and the podium gear is just so amazing. 

It’s so incredible when you get to experience it with three other teammates on a relay. Swimming is an individual sport, so it’s pretty awesome when you get to come together as a team like that and achieve something. 

Chris Kuc is a sportswriter who covered a myriad of sports during his career with the Chicago Tribune, The Athletic, and the Chicago Blackhawks before joining Sports Section. You can reach out to Chris at Chris.Kuc@thesportssection.com or on Twitter: @ChrisKuc.