Scott Fowler

For swimmer Kathleen Baker, 19, road to Olympics ran between Winston-Salem, Charlotte

Kathleen Baker, right, celebrates with Olivia Smoliga after the women’s 100-meter backstroke final at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday. Smoliga was first and Baker second, putting both on the U.S. team that will compete in Rio.
Kathleen Baker, right, celebrates with Olivia Smoliga after the women’s 100-meter backstroke final at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday. Smoliga was first and Baker second, putting both on the U.S. team that will compete in Rio. AP

At 19, Kathleen Baker stands as the youngest member of SwimMAC Carolina to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic Swim Team.

The Winston-Salem native qualified second in the women’s 100 backstroke Tuesday at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha, Neb., swimming her personal-best time at exactly the right moment. The past four years of her swimming career boiled down to a single minute – 59.29 seconds, actually – and she came up big.

“It was just incredible,” Baker said. “Those were the most stressful 48 hours of my life, and I ended up swimming what for me was the perfect race.”

But what those facts don’t tell you is how it takes a village to raise an Olympian. The sleeping bag that maintained a permanent place in Kimberley Baker’s car for years is evidence of that.

Kathleen Baker has been commuting 80 miles each way between Charlotte and Winston-Salem since she was 14, burning up Interstates 77 and 40 on hundreds of round trips so she could spend time in the hometown she loved and still get the coaching that she craved. From 10th grade on, she was home-schooled so she could more easily combine swimming’s rigorous schedule with her academics.

“My mom would take me to practice every single day,” Baker said. “She would sleep in the car in a sleeping bag sometimes in the morning while waiting for me to finish practice. It was a crazy schedule. My whole family sacrificed. It wasn’t just me. It was all of us.”

Said Kimberley Baker, Kathleen’s mom and a financial planner in Winston-Salem: “That was a real interesting proposition, commuting every day from Winston-Salem into Charlotte traffic. We had one of those coolers in the car that you could plug into your cigarette lighter to keep hot food. It was crazy.

“And after that, I still had to go to work.”

Norris Baker, Kathleen’s father, would alternate the commuting duty more often as the years went by. Eventually, the Bakers rented an apartment in Huntersville, with one parent staying with Kathleen in Charlotte on most weeknights and the other staying at the family home in Winston-Salem with older sister Rachel. As Panthers PSL holders, they all made it to Charlotte for home games each fall Sunday.

Kathleen’s home-schooling was supervised by her father, a longtime teacher and administrator in Winston-Salem schools. Other teachers from Forsyth Country Day – where Kathleen attended from kindergarten through 10th grade and where her father worked for years – tutored her. Rachel, the one who cried the most when Kathleen made the Olympic team, provided the stalwart friendship.

Still, it was an unusual life. The Bakers kept it going for years because they were convinced that SwimMAC’s David Marsh was the right coach for Kathleen and because Kathleen herself never wavered in pursuit of her passion.

“The sacrifices we made as a family sound big,” Norris Baker said. “But at the same time, they were easy to do because of how much it meant to her and how committed she was.”

Said Kimberley Baker: “We never had to think, ‘What are we doing this for?’ Because she just wanted it so, so much.”

‘She was instantly amazing’

When Rachel Baker was a child, she was scared of the water. Her mother had briefly been a college swimmer at the College of Charleston, and both parents wanted their children to be water-safe. So they signed Rachel up for swim lessons, and then a swim team called the Crazy Ducks, in Winston-Salem.

“I was 6 years old,” Rachel said, laughing. “Kathleen came to swim meets, but she was just 4. The next year she was 5, and she wanted to start with me, too. She was instantly amazing – better than me almost from the beginning.”

Rachel Baker is no slouch at swimming – she is a rising senior at Washington and Lee University and swims there for the Division III program. But Kathleen Baker was startlingly good, and by age 14 she had her sights set on SwimMAC, which sent five U.S. Olympians to the London Olympics in 2012 under Marsh and has broken that record in these Trials.

“By ninth grade, Kathleen was making a real strong push to want to make a change in her swimming career,” Kimberley Baker said. “She really wanted to catch Dave Marsh’s eye along the way – that was a strong motivation for SwimMAC.”

A SwimMAC exception

Most members of SwimMAC’s Team Elite have already graduated from college. Baker became one of the exceptions, swimming against some of the best in America day after day and learning how to handle things from her older peers.

“It helped me grow up a little faster,” Baker said. “I learned an incredible amount, being 14 or 15 and swimming with Olympians. Handling your emotions, doing media, enjoying what you do – all of that.”

Marsh has long been amazed at Baker’s energy, which he describes as “always positive.” Her ascent wasn’t an unbroken line of success, but even in her losses Baker seemed to hardly ever get down.

“When she had a blip or a bad result, she hardly acknowledged it,” Kimberley Baker said. “Kathleen kind of swept those under the rug and moved on. She has never had a confidence problem.”

Baker became one of the country’s top recruits as a senior and chose to go to University of California, Berkeley, which has one of the best swimming programs in the nation. After her freshman year ended, she flew home from California to Charlotte in late April, readying for Olympic Trials.

‘The joy of all that’

Baker said before the Olympic Trials began that she believed the 100 backstroke would be her best shot. She would need to finish in the top two to make her first Olympic team.

The field was cut to 16 after preliminaries, then to eight after the semifinals. Baker made both those cuts and had a lane in a final that included Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin, two of the best backstrokers in U.S. history. Baker had never beaten Franklin in a race before.

Baker loves the 200 individual medley – it is her favorite race. But she knew that a tenth of a second could make the difference in going to Rio in the 100 backstroke or not. She also knew that the 200 IM preliminaries were on Tuesday morning and the 100 backstroke final was on Tuesday night.

She and Marsh made the difficult decision to scratch out of the 200 IM, putting almost all their eggs into the 100 back basket.

Baker was in Lane 5. Backstrokers keep their head still and look straight up while racing, and so she knew when she got off to a great start.

“In the first 50, you can see the scoreboard so clearly,” Baker said. “So I knew where I was.”

Where was she? In first place at the halfway point.

The Olympics in sight

In the second half of the race, Baker no longer could see the video screen but could see a set of Olympic rings on the scoreboard. “For the last 20 meters, I just looked at those Olympic rings and nothing else,” she said. “I didn’t know where anyone else was; I just did my best.”

It was just good enough. Baker was passed by Olivia Smoliga for first place. But she held off her college teammate, Amy Bilquist, by 0.08 seconds to maintain second. Franklin ended up seventh and Coughlin was eighth.

Baker hugged Smoliga, did a joyful poolside interview with NBC and then ran off to find Marsh and her family.

“Every time I saw someone new who had helped me get here, I would cry,” Baker said. “The joy of all that – it’s going to be almost impossible to recreate.”

Older sister Rachel was the one who was crying hardest afterward.

“Kathleen has always been my best friend,” Rachel said. “I burst into tears – I am talking about whole-body sobs – when I saw the Olympic rings next to her name. It was one of the best moments of my life.”

Of course, the best way to recreate it would be to win a medal at the Olympics. It will not be out of the question for Baker to do so, although she won’t be a favorite in Brazil. She just knows she’s going – and she will bring along the family that gave her the chance to do so in the first place.