- Associated Press - Saturday, October 22, 2016

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) - Kathleen Baker is back to being a college student, sitting through lectures on molecular cellular biology, writing essays and cramming for tests in gender studies.

But Baker is also enjoying the perks of being a two-time medalist in swimming at the Rio Olympics.

In the two months since winning a gold medal in the 400-meter medley relay and a silver in the 100-meter backstroke, the former Forsyth Country Day student has visited the White House, where she met President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden; was feted on the pitcher’s mound of an Oakland A’s game; and appeared at the iPhone 7 Plus launch in San Francisco at the behest of Apple CEO Tim Cook.

“It is so surreal for me,” said Baker, calling from the University of California, Berkeley, where she is a sophomore. “It’s really crazy. Every part of my dream has come true at this point, and for weeks, I couldn’t put it into words because it was such an amazing experience.”

The hoopla will continue. Last week, Baker was nominated for the Perseverance Award in the Golden Goggles, USA Swimming’s annual soiree. This year’s event will be in New York in November, with Bob Costas serving as host.

For all these pinch-me moments, there’s plenty to remind Baker that she has the same challenges as other college kids.

Take for instance her experience assembling Ikea furniture for her rental house in Berkeley.

“That was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done,” Baker said with a laugh. “I finished putting it together and there were some extra parts. It’s still standing, and the spare parts are just off to the side.”

She is also balancing a full course load while swimming for the Golden Bears. She continues to add to a string of brilliant performances that date to the U.S. Olympic Trials in June when she finished second in the 100-meter backstroke, edging favorite Missy Franklin to secure a spot on Team USA.

In the finals in Rio, Baker swam the 100-meter back in 58.75 for the silver medal, her third sub-59 second performance in that event in a 48-hour span, and the only three sub-59 performances of her career.

Based on her hot streak, Baker was chosen to swim a leg on the 400-meter relay team that eventually took the gold medal. That relay team had the distinction of winning the 1,000th gold medal for the U.S. in the modern Summer Olympics.

Swimming for UC Berkeley, Baker recently was named “Queen of the Pool” in a meet against Cal Poly. The title goes to the swimmer who has the fastest aggregate time in five individual 100-meter events, a showcase of versatility.

“Everything is coming together,” Baker said. “After the trials, I just focused on the 100 back, fine-tuning that and getting my strength up. That plays a huge role, how strong I am.”

Having fulfilled a dream to make the Olympic team, Baker arrived in Rio relaxed and eager to revel in the experience, writing daily in a journal so she wouldn’t forget anything.

During a week of heady experiences, a few memories stand out.

There was the time in Olympic village when members of the swim team spontaneously broke into “God Bless America,” and were soon joined by other members of Team USA as puzzled athletes from Italy and Germany looked on.

Another moment etched in her memory is the night she and her roommate, Katie Meili, won medals.

“We were so excited, we couldn’t sleep. So we said, ‘Let’s go to the dining hall.’ So, we go get pizza and Popsicles, and it’s 5 o’clock in the morning. It was just a cool experience to be with each other and reflect on it,” Baker said.

With her star rising, Baker wants to advocate more for people with Crohn’s disease, an inflammation of the digestive tract that can cause severe abdominal pain, sap a person’s strength and severely alter an appetite. Baker learned she had Crohn’s disease when she was 12, a diagnosis that threatened to derail her Olympic dreams.

Leading up to the Olympics, Baker talked about her disease with The New York Times and NBC Sports, which boosted her profile while inspiring countless people.

In Rio, her social media accounts overflowed with messages from other folks with Crohn’s disease cheering her on, thanking her for telling her story.

“It took me awhile to come out, but I’m in a time in my life where I could help people and inspire them, and I think that’s why I was given this,” Baker said. “It’s part of my journey to have Crohn’s and go to the Olympics. That I can help a little kid who is 8 and wants to swim, and I can tell him, ‘You can do what you want’. That’s real nice.”

Baker plans to come home for several days around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and possibly for a fall break later this month.

She is sure to hear from some of the folks from Forsyth Country Day, who have championed her throughout her Olympic journey. Besides attending FCDS, her father, Norris, was a longtime administrator at the school.

“A lot of the teachers at FCD will be in my life forever,” she said.


Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, https://www.journalnow.com

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