SwimMAC’s Kathleen Baker adds relay gold on final day of Olympic swimming

Simone Manuel, Kathleen Baker, Dana Vollmer and Lilly King (left to right) pose with their gold medals after winning the Women’s 4x100 medley relay on the final day of swimming at the Rio Olympics.
Simone Manuel, Kathleen Baker, Dana Vollmer and Lilly King (left to right) pose with their gold medals after winning the Women’s 4x100 medley relay on the final day of swimming at the Rio Olympics. Getty Images

North Carolina swimmer Kathleen Baker added a gold medal to the silver she had already earned Saturday on the final night of the Olympic swimming meet.

Baker, 19, swam the backstroke – the first leg of the women’s 4x100 individual medley relay – and then got to celebrate as she and her teammates finished first over Australia by 1.87 seconds. Denmark took the bronze.

Said an exultant Baker afterward: “It’s just the best feeling in the world. It’s something you dream about since you were a little kid. ... I just love everything about this meet and I’m sort of sad it’s over. But it was so much fun.”

Baker and her teammates on the relay – Lilly King, Dana Vollmer and Simone Manuel – clinched the 1,000th overall gold medal for America in the modern Summer Olympics. The first one came in 1896. Of those 1,000, more than half have come in track and field (323) and swimming (246).

The U.S. swimming team dominated the Olympic meet once again, leading all countries with 33 overall medals and 16 golds. The last of those 16 gold medals came only minutes after Baker’s relay, when the men’s 4x100 IM relay team won as well with a squad headlined by Michael Phelps.

With the swim meet over, Baker said one of her first celebrations would come at the McDonald’s in the athletes’ Olympic Village. She then planned to get together with her parents, who let her move from Winston-Salem at age 14 to Charlotte so she could train at SwimMAC Carolina.

Baker said she plans to fly home on Aug. 16 and then spend most of the next week in North Carolina before returning to Cal-Berkeley for her sophomore year.

“I’m going to go to both Charlotte and Winston-Salem, because I have a lot of friends in both places,” Baker said. “I want to get out on the lake for sure.”

Inspiring others with Crohn’s

With Baker’s swimming profile steadily increasing, she has decided to embrace speaking about the Crohn’s disease she has fought for years in hopes of inspiring others who have the disease.

“As a kid,” she said, “I didn’t have someone to look up to in the Crohn’s world. I remember Googling it and saying, ‘Wow, there are no good stories out there.’ And I really want to be that inspirational story for little kids, someone they can look up to along the way. ... I will always tell them that you need to surround yourself with people to believe in you, because I have certainly had that.”

Baker wasn’t the only SwimMAC swimmer who received a relay gold Saturday night. By virtue of swimming a leg of the IM relay in the preliminaries on Friday, Katie Meili also added a gold to her collection (she already had a bronze).

Although Baker’s time in her 100 backstroke Saturday was solid, she only touched the wall in fourth place. However, King swam next and passed two swimmers, Vollmer grabbed first place on the third leg and Manuel made the final margin about a body length.

SwimMAC’s medal-filled Games

Six of the seven swimmers with strong North Carolina connections in these Olympics ended up with at least one medal. The only exception was SwimMAC’s Cammile Adams, who finished fourth in her event but swam a personal-best time while doing so.

Baker, a relentless competitor who is one of the few swimmers you will ever find who talks about loving two-a-day workouts, should be a strong contender for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

By then, Baker will be 23. She is a strong component of a new wave of American swimmers. Of the four women in the final relay Saturday night, only Vollmer is over age 20.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler