Scott Fowler

Startling performance puts N.C. swimmer Kathleen Baker in contention for Olympic gold

Kathleen Baker of United States competes during the heats of the Women's 400m Freestyle on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Kathleen Baker of United States competes during the heats of the Women's 400m Freestyle on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Getty Images

Somewhere at the bottom of the Olympic Aquatics Stadium pool rests one of Kathleen Baker’s earrings.

She hopes to obtain a more valuable piece of jewelry Monday night.

Caught up in the wake of the best race Baker had ever swum, the earring fell off the Charlottean’s right ear in the middle of Baker’s 100 backstroke Sunday afternoon. Undeterred, Baker finished the race in 58.84 seconds, a personal best that also turned out to be the No. 1 time in the event’s preliminaries.

Baker, 19, followed that up in the semifinal Sunday night with exactly the same time. Again, she ranked first, startling the crowd at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium. Baker only finished second in the 100 back in the Olympic Trials five weeks ago. But she will now swim in the Olympic final Monday night (9:30 p.m. Eastern) with a realistic shot at a gold medal.

“Gold is my goal,” Baker said. “But if I medal, that’d be great. If I won, that’d be great. If I go a best time, that’d be great.”

Baker, 19, will face a crowded field in the final that she admitted would be “definitely intimidating.”

“Those are the best in the world and I have looked up to them for years,” she said. “To just be a part of it is so incredible. I’m super-excited.”

At age 14, Baker moved from Winston-Salem to Charlotte so she could train at SwimMAC Carolina. Her teammate at SwimMAC – Katie Meili – will also be in medal contention Monday night, as she advanced to the final eight in the women’s 100 breaststroke Sunday with two strong performances.

‘Amazing and exciting’

Meili, whose last name rhymes with “Smiley,” finished third in the preliminaries Sunday afternoon. She then tied for fifth in the semifinals with a slightly slower time to move into the Monday final.

Lilly King of the U.S. will be the top seed in the same event Monday night (9:54 p.m. Eastern) and will be a stronger medal favorite than Meili. But like Baker, Meili has reached an Olympic final in her Olympic debut.

“It’s just really amazing and exciting – a big dream come true,” said Meili, who graduated from Columbia in 2013 and then moved to Charlotte. “So it’ll be really fun.”

Meili, who surprised a lot of people by making the Olympic team, was so revved up for her first swim on Sunday that she couldn’t calm her strokes down in the water.

“I overswam the heck out of it,” Meili said. “David (Marsh, her head coach) said my tempo was faster than it’s ever been in my life.”

Then she swam a more controlled tempo in her second race, trying to just make the top eight and save something for Monday night’s final.

“I’m not thrilled with the time,” Meili said after swimming the race in 1:06.52 in the Sunday night semifinals after going 1:06.00 in the preliminaries. “But somewhere in between this morning and tonight would be a good swim for me (Monday). ... I need to find the sweet spot.”

Both King and Meili will have to contend in the 100 breaststroke with Russian Yulia Efimova, who was originally banned from these Olympics because of a past suspension for doping. But Efimova was then reinstated for unknown reasons by swimming’s governing bodies in a controversial move. A gold-medal threat herself, Efimova could shut one of the Americans out of a medal. Look for King and Efimova to possibly engage in some pre-race gamesmanship as the two both seemed to be trying to send messages to each other Sunday with various stares and finger-wags. Meili stayed out of that fray.

“At this point, we just have to focus on ourselves and not worry about it too much,” Meili said. “I’m here to swim my race and not anyone else’s.”

It was Baker’s performance, though, that caused the most buzz around the pool.

Best time, right time

“That was really, really good,” said Marsh of Baker – he coaches both Baker and Meili at SwimMAC and also serves in these Olympics as the women’s swimming head coach for Team USA. “She had her best time at the right time.”

The time also put Baker in strong play to be in the 4x100 medley relay final that will be contested Saturday, giving her another chance at an Olympic medal if she doesn’t get one Monday night. Meili will likely be in at least the preliminaries of that relay as well.

Baker just finished her freshman year at Cal-Berkeley, where she is a collegiate star. She has Crohn’s disease – a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract – and has undergone years of various treatments while continuing her swim career.

“I feel super healthy right now,” she said Sunday.

Still, though, it didn’t appear like she expected her first two sub-59 times to come on the same day Sunday. Baker looked absolutely shocked when she came out of the water after the first one and looked at the scoreboard.

But after that performance Sunday, it won’t be shocking at all if she leaves Brazil with a gold medal.

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