Most Olympic athletes have a story to tell and a long list of challenges they’ve overcome to realize their dreams, but for 19-year-old swimmer, Kathleen Baker, who lives with Crohn’s disease, that story could fill the pages of an epic novel.
A native of Winston-Salem, NC, Baker made her Olympic debut in Rio. She won her first medal—silver in the 100-meter backstroke—on the first Monday of the Games.
Baker was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2010, just shy of her 13th birthday and on the very same weekend that she set two national records for her age group. Her symptoms were vague—fever, fatigue, feeling poorly—and laboratory tests were inconclusive until her pediatrician referred Kathleen to a gastroenterologist who performed a colonoscopy.
Baker and her family learned as much as they could about her condition: Crohn’s causes severe gastrointestinal inflammation and unfathomable fatigue, and is often difficult to treat. At first, the road—or in this case, the pool—ahead seemed impossible.
Baker was determined not to let her health challenges define her life, and that sometimes put her plan at odds with what her parents, doctors, and even coaches, thought best. She lost weight, one treatment protocol and then another proved ineffective, symptoms—stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea—made it difficult to train.
During flare-ups, Baker had to limit her swimming to one session per day—unheard of for an athlete with Olympic aspirations. But in spite of all this, she continued to improve, winning four medals at the world junior championships in 2013, and finishing second in the 200-meter backstroke at senior nationals the next year.
Baker attends the University of California, Berkeley, and is pursuing a career in the medical field. After a somewhat disappointing showing at the NCCA Division I Championships, she was at her best at the Olympic Trials this spring—swimming the fastest race of her life and ensuring her place on the U.S. Olympic team. While she isn’t favored to win in Rio, in a way, Baker and all the young people with chronic conditions that she has inspired, already has.
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