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SwimMAC teen to gain taste of big time in Australia

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
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    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Kathleen Baker, 17, is the youngest of eight swimmers from SwimMAC Carolina who will compete in the the Pan Pacifics, the biggest meet of this non-Olympic year.
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    Kathleen Baker

Kathleen Baker’s star has risen so far in the swim world that she now finds herself Down Under.

Baker, 17, is the youngest of eight swimmers from SwimMAC Carolina who will compete next week in Australia in the biggest meet of this non-Olympic year – the Pan Pacifics. A North Carolina product who grew up mostly in Winston-Salem and has lived in Charlotte the past three years, she has a decent chance to make the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.

“I think that is every swimmer's goal,” Baker said by phone from California shortly before boarding her plane for Australia this week. “I’d love to make the Olympic team. But I have to make sure that’s not the only thing that I am swimming for, because so few people make the Olympics. You have to be happy with other things, too – like doing best times or just doing your best.”

David Marsh, the head coach of SwimMAC’s elite swim group of which Baker is a member, said Brazil will be a realistic goal for Baker.

“The swimmers on the Pan Pacific team will likely make up the core of the USA Olympic team,” Marsh said. “Kathleen will take away lessons from this trip that will be very valuable to her ... She still has several areas where she can improve. Probably the only place you can’t improve is on her commitment and motivation. Her biggest strength is her inner drive.”

Baker is home-schooled, which allows her to mold schoolwork around her swim schedule. She is a rising senior and one of the most highly sought college swimmers in the incoming Class of 2015. The popular swim website SwimSwam.com ranks Baker as the No. 3 recruit in the nation (SwimMAC teammate Nora McCullagh, also a very promising swimmer, ranks 10th on the same list).

Baker said she will take official visits to California, Texas, Georgia and Tennessee in the fall before deciding on a college choice.

Before that, though, comes Australia. This will be the most prestigious meet in which Baker has ever competed, and she said she just hopes to make the final (top eight) in at least one event. She joins a 60-member U.S. team that includes many swimmers that are older than she is – including 30-year-old SwimMAC teammate Ryan Lochte. There are also a few more well-known swimmers much closer to her age like 19-year-old Missy Franklin, a five-time Olympic medalist in 2012.

“I'm really excited to learn from everyone,” Baker said. “They know so much, and they’ve been through this process before.”

Baker has not. She is a teenager at heart, giggly over the idea of seeing a koala in Australia and labeling the entire trip as “super cool.”

In the pool, though, she is very fast and very versatile. She will swim the 100- and 200-meter backstroke in Australia as well as the 200 individual medley. Her finish in the 200 backstroke at the U.S. nationals in Irvine, Calif., a few days ago qualified her for this meet.

“Kathleen reminds me a little of me at that age in the way she just wants to go fast all the time,” said Kirsty Coventry, the seven-time Olympic medalist from Zimbabwe who recently moved to Charlotte and has trained alongside Baker. “She's got a whole lot of potential.”

Baker began swimming because her older sister, Rachel, was on a swim team. “I just wanted to do everything she did,” Baker said. Rachel Baker now swims at Washington & Lee and plans to come to Australia, along with the girls’ mother, to watch the competition between U.S. swimmers and much of the rest of the world (Europe being the notable exception).

Baker said she gets “bored” practicing only the backstroke, which is why she enjoys the individual medley races in which swimmers use all four strokes. Said Marsh of Baker: “She has four very solid strokes. As she gets stronger and matures as a strategic racer, we will have to figure out what her best chances are in her best events. For now, we call the 200 individual medley her best event.”

And for now, Baker is just having fun.

“I'm a happy person,” Baker said. “I enjoy a lot of things about swimming, but racing is my favorite part. That’s made me happy from eight years old when I started up until now. It’s definitely what I like the most.”

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