Olympics

Charlotte’s Kathleen Baker inspires with silver in 100 backstroke

Silver medalist Kathleen Baker (right) of the United States and gold medal medalist Katinka Hosszu of Hungary pose on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women’s 100-meter backstroke at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.
Silver medalist Kathleen Baker (right) of the United States and gold medal medalist Katinka Hosszu of Hungary pose on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women’s 100-meter backstroke at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. Getty Images

North Carolina’s Kathleen Baker won a silver medal in the Olympics Monday night, finishing second in the women’s 100 backstroke and saying she hoped to inspire others with her fight against Crohn’s disease.

A giddy Baker first described the race afterward like this: “So incredible! I mean I went a best time and just got a medal! I couldn’t even put into words how happy I am and how grateful for the amount of support I have here from the teammates and coaches along the way. It just takes a village for everyone to get me here and I couldn’t be happier.”

Baker continued what has been the meet of a lifetime for her with another personal-best time. She swam the race in 58.75 seconds – all three of her sub-59 times of her career came in a 48-hour span in Rio.

But Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu was just too strong, winning in 58.45 seconds for her second gold medal of these Olympics. Canada’s Kylie Masse and China’s Yuanhui Fu tied for third, each finishing a fingertip behind Baker for bronze medals. The other American in the race, Olivia Smoliga, was sixth.

Baker has recently made public her fight against Crohn’s disease – a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. She has undergone years of various treatments and practice adjustments to continue her swimming career.

“I definitely have been through my fair share of adversity,” Baker said. “I think it really helps me appreciate the sport even more, knowing that it can be taken away from me. I love swimming more than anything in the world, and to be able to swim in the Olympics – it’s an incredible feeling. I hope I inspired a lot of people today. ...

“I prayed about this a lot. I think this is something I’ve been put here to do. I’ve never given up on my dreams, and I hope other people are the same.”

Tough, resilient

Said Katie Meili, Baker’s teammate at Charlotte-based SwimMAC Carolina and her close friend: “Now that Kathleen’s story is a little bit more public – and I’ve said it many times before – she’s the toughest and most resilient person I’ve ever met. For her to win that medal, I don’t know anyone more deserving.”

Baker also gave a shout-out to North Carolina when I asked her what message she’d like to send back home. “Thank you so much for the support – it means the world,” she said. “And I can’t wait to check on my social media, it’s been blowing up this week.”

Baker, 19, had previously had the best two times of her life in the 100 backstroke on Sunday. In both the preliminaries and the semifinals, she swam the race in exactly 58.84 seconds. In both cases, she had the best time, edging Hosszu.

Baker was the youngest of the eight finalists Monday night. She had admitted Sunday night that being part of such a field would be “definitely intimidating” in the biggest race of her life. “Those are the best in the world and I have looked up to them for years,” she said 24 hours before the race. “To just be a part of it is so incredible.”

A factor throughout

Baker was more than a part of the final, though. She was a factor all the way through – second at the halfway mark and then briefly in the lead with about 25 meters to go. But Hosszu, who had been sixth at the halfway mark, surged in the second half of the race to the win. Hosszu had already won a gold medal in these Olympics, shaving more than two seconds off the world record in the 400 individual medley.

Baker, who just completed her freshman year at Cal-Berkeley, moved from Winston-Salem to Charlotte when she was 14 so she could train at SwimMAC Carolina. Her parents never moved from Winston-Salem, so the family burned up Interstate 77 and Interstate 40 for years so that she could spend time in the Winston-Salem hometown she loved and still obtain the coaching in Charlotte that she craved.

Baker was home-schooled from 10th grade onward so that her swimming schedule could be accommodated.

I think this is something I’ve been put here to do. I’ve never given up on my dreams, and I hope other people are the same.

Kathleen Baker of SwimMAC Carolina

Baker will have a chance for a second medal later in these Olympics in the medley relay. It was barely a month ago that she finished second in the Olympic Trials to edge into the Olympics; now she has finished second in the world.

“My reaction then at Trials and my reaction now is the same,” Baker said. “Pure joy.”

And incidentally, Baker had one more thing go right, too, in the past two days. She lost a pearl earring during her preliminary swim on Sunday. It was later found and returned to her.

Now she has both of her earrings back. Hopefully, they go well with silver.

What does it feel like to make the Olympic team and represent America in Rio? Cammile Adams, Kathleen Baker, Anthony Ervin, Jimmy Feigen, Ryan Lochte and Katie Meili share their thoughts about traveling to Rio to compete for Team USA. All six trai

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com, @scott_fowler

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