When Winston-Salem native Kathleen Baker won a silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke on Monday night at the Rio Olympics, there were plenty of people cheering in her home town, and among those were a couple of former coaches who always knew Baker was exceptional.
Bob Jennings, who coached her when she was 8 years old at STAR Aquatics, and Kristen Omli, who coached her in a youth summer league and is friends with the Baker family, saw Baker’s early potential.
Jennings has also been the swim coach at Forsyth Country Day for the past four years, and coached Baker’s sister, Rachel. Kathleen Baker, who is 19 now, was enrolled at Forsyth Country Day at the time, but she and her family decided on homeschooling and training at SwimMAC Carolina in Charlotte.
“I knew that she had something special,” Jennings said. “You can tell when somebody’s special. My biggest concern with her when she was young was that she was going to get burned out because that’s all she wanted to do. But she never did. I talked to her mom and dad about it a lot. Once she stopped playing soccer and focused on swimming she just kept going.
“And at that point you knew that there was something special and she was like 14. She continued to get better and win some of the junior national meets.”
Omli said she watched Baker swim Monday night while on vacation. She said she texted Baker to congratulate her, but she hasn’t heard from the family. She said it was likely that she wouldn’t hear from the family until they arrived home.
“Even in the trials (in June), and even more so on this magnitude of what she just accomplished (Monday) night, I think her life is forever changed,” Omli said.
Baker, who will enter her sophomore year at the University of California, Berkeley in the fall, finished slightly behind Katinka Hosszu of Hungary.
“What she’s accomplished is incredible,” Omli said. “The impact that she’s made for herself and her family and just and what she will be able to do is just incredible. I’m just really happy for her and just happy that she’s been able to have this experience. It’s awesome.”
Teri McKeever, the women’s swimming and diving coach at Cal, said she knows it was “a dream come true” for Baker.
“Just to see her smile, and I think anybody who knows her or doesn’t know her, you can just see the joy on her face; that kind of says it all,” McKeever said.
Baker was seen as a long shot for a medal coming into the Olympics, but she had the fastest qualifying time in the semifinals at 58.84. However, she topped that Monday night at 58.75, but Hosszu won at 58.45.
“I think she’s just done a great job just making the team,” McKeever said. “That was definitely a huge hurdle, and I think she’s gained a lot of confidence from that, particularly the last two summers at Pan Pacs (Pan Pacific) and Worlds. The definition of a great competitor is to get it done when the stakes are the highest.”
Omli said she wasn’t surprised at Baker taking home the silver medal.
“At even given competition it’s any given day, any given race,” Omli said. “You have no idea what can happen in any kind of sporting event. People have good days and people have bad days. So for Kathleen, Kathleen is a competitor through and through.”
Fighting is something Baker has done most of her life. She received a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, a chronic gastrointestinal inflammation while she was at Forsyth Country Day. According to MayoClinic.com, Crohn’s disease can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition.
“It’s not hard for her because she’s been sick a lot,” Jennings, who also owns Swim Gear of North Carolina, said. “She has to manage the sickness. She has to manage what she’s eating.”
People at home who know her well can’t wait for Baker to get home and celebrate the achievement.
“With her attitude, with her work ethic, with her desire, and everything that you see and the bright smiley face that you see that’s what you get from her,” Jennings said. “And it couldn’t happen to a better family, a better person.”