The hometown girl did well for herself Tuesday night.

Kathleen Baker qualified for the Rio Olympics by finishing second in the 100-meter backstroke at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, Neb.

Baker, a 19-year-old from Winston-Salem, finished in 59.29 seconds, just behind Olivia Smoliga (59.02). Both swimmers will compete for the United States.

There was a celebration and watch party poolside at Forsyth Country Club, where Baker is a member. About 30-35 people attended. And as Baker took a narrow lead over Smoliga at the 50-meter turn, a large cheer came from the crowd.

Lee Smith, the pool director at Forsyth Country Club, set up the party after Baker qualified second in the semifinals Monday night.

“We’re so proud of Kathleen and the time she spent on our team. We had to celebrate that with the rest of the membership here,” Smith said.

Smith said he’s known Baker since she was 6 years old, swimming at the club for the Crazy Ducks.

“Everybody here was really rooting for her,” he said. “We’re all so happy for her and proud of her.”

Joining Baker in Omaha was her father Norris.

“The feeling is so hard to describe... One moment you believe it is destiny and at the same time you believe it is impossible,” Norris Baker texted the Journal. “Then the impossible happens. We are so happy to see her dreams come true, because we know how hard she has worked for this.”

Another admirer from afar was her former coach, Kristen Omli. Omli, who watched the meet from home, coached Kathleen Baker in the summer league when she was young, and she’s now good friends with the Baker family.

“My whole family was watching, so I think for all of us, we were definitely on the edge of our seats,” Omli said. “It was exciting. I’ll be real honest. It wasn’t a total shock for me. Kathleen, from an early age, I’ve known that she’s very talented and very gifted, and an ultra-competitor.”

Omli works as a consultant for Competitor Swim, which does the lane lines for USA Swimming and the NCAA. She saw Baker in Omaha on Monday.

“No matter who’s in the water next to her (in the Olympics), she’s going to swim fast and be ready to compete,” Omli said.

Nathan Battle worked with Baker’s father at Forsyth Country Day School and was poolside at Forsyth Country Club Tuesday night. He said he was nervous until he saw Baker make the turn.

“I thought, ‘I think she’s going to get this,’” he said. “And then I thought, ‘Don’t early call it.”

Grace Babcock, 22, was sitting with her family enjoying the festivities. She said she played soccer with Baker’s sister, Rachel.

“It’s pretty unbelievable considering we used to swim swim team with her, and now she’s going to the Olympics,” Babcock said.

Baker clearly has an influence over the younger kids at the club, among those being 12-year-old Haley Harman.

“It was very exciting and overwhelming,” Harman said. “It’s exciting that we have an Olympic player in Winston-Salem because that really never happens.”

Harman said Baker is a role model for all kids.

“She’s setting an example for those younger kids out in Winston-Salem and North Carolina,” Harman said.

Get today’s top stories right in your inbox. Sign up for our daily morning newsletter.

— Journal reporter Brant Wilkerson-New contributed to this report.

jspivey@wsjournal.com (336) 727-7370 @JaySpivey_WSJ

Recommended for you

Load comments