A Rio Olympic Games gold and silver medalist, and Budapest Worlds gold, silver and bronze winner, NCAA swimmer of the Year, Cal’s Kathleen Baker has become this era’s top women’s backstroker for the U.S. -- and she’s not planning on slowing down any time soon. Still just 20 years old, Baker talks about what she learned last summer, and what she hopes to do as she moves forward in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. So few ever get that sweep of medals like you did at Worlds, and to medal in both the 100 and 200 backstroke -- what was Worlds like for you?
Kathleen: I think it went awesome! That’s the first time I’ve ever swam that (many events) at a meet like that and done super well.
2. Your 200 was amazing -- where did that come from?
Kathleen: I had done the 100 back and relay before, so to do my best in the 200 and get three medals left me super happy. I tried to take advantage of swimming the 200 back -- to see what I could do. I had started in the summer trying to focus on the 100 and 200 with pace work because I hadn’t swum it in a couple of years. But I did go a best time in the 200 at Trials. I also had to figure out how to swim it in the semifinals.
3. How did you figure out the 200 back then?
Kathleen: I’ve really gotten into my stroke, what’s comfortable and at what tempo. Practicing at that pace has helped me, especially being able to take it out fast.
4. That Rio team of women was one for the ages -- I think in time you all will even be more widely appreciated for your accomplishment, but also the attitude and togetherness. What was that like?
Kathleen: We all as a team worked so well together -- all the girls were really focused on that. I think that really helps on the support side, swimming for your country. And I think that’s what really helped us for Worlds.
5. How did you handle Olympic Trials so well this most recent time?
Kathleen: Olympic Trials is definitely the most stressful thing. You have to be on for a minute of your life. I was so happy I got the opportunity to go to the Olympics, to get a silver and gold medal. That’s more than I ever expected. And it was one of the most fun meets.
6. That women’s 100 back in Rio was fast, not just you, all on the podium, and that incredible tie for third-place, but the final and semifinals, how amazing was that?
Kathleen: Yes, and I think that I didn’t realize it until I watched the races, how close we all were. So, I was grateful I could get my hand on the wall when I did. I was thinking, “Please just get a medal,” and was hoping for whatever medal I could get.
7. How about your friendship with Katie Meili, and being part of each other’s journey for both Rio and Budapest?
Kathleen: Katie Meili and I swam together (in North Carolina), so I am as nervous for her as I am for me! I’ve swam with her since I was 16 years old so she’s like a big sister to me. Having her there provides a lot of comfort. She was my Olympic roommate and that night we both came back with a medal we could not sleep -- we were so excited?
8. You were fast before you even got to Cal, but your ascension to the top of NCAAs, the U.S. and internationally has been so consistent -- is that the “journey” part we hear people talk about?
Kathleen: For sure. Definitely, I consider that I’ve been on a four or five-year journey, sort of climbing up the ladder. I have been able to improve each year. I pick something each year to add to the program because I know there’s more that can be gained. I’ve been lucky to get the experiences I have had along the way. Whether that’s NCAA swimming or making meets during the Quad, Nationals or getting international opportunities -- you learn so much about your competitors and yourself.
9. You, Lilly King, Kelsi Worrell, and Simone Manuel at 2017 Worlds breaking that incredible 2012 U.S. teams’ world record -- did you all know you could do that?
Kathleen: We definitely were focused on that. We always talk about breaking the world record. We wanted to get as ready as we could and go as hard as we could after it. I think that was the main goal for a relay after Rio -- to be even faster.
10. You also broke Natalie Coughlin’s record in the 50 back in Budapest, how do you string together that many great swims in one meet?
Kathleen: I never really know how exactly I am going to do, or even what I am going to do before the meet, because sometimes the meet schedule is tricky. I think some of the other meets and the schedules they have, when they are different from Worlds or Olympics, it gives me a chance to swim the 200 IM or 200 free, or at least do a different schedule than Worlds or the Olympics. And I do focus on the IM during the college season. But for the most part I have focused on the backstroke for those (international meets), really honing in and trying to fine-tune some details in those events.
11. Regan Smith said she really liked meeting you, what was it like to see someone who maybe is a bit like yourself, even similar in height and that upbeat personality?
Kathleen: Regan is such a sweet girl and so much fun to be on the team with. It’s nice in the 200 back to have someone with you that you can talk to, and I could talk to her if she’s nervous -- it’s just so great for her career that she’s already made a team. She’s grown so much, from World Trials, that to see her get into a final in the 200 back is super impressive. And it’s so great that she’s such a sweet girl and nice to be around.
12. Picking Cal you get the swimming and the school, both at high ends, how cool is that?
Kathleen: I’ve definitely gotten the best of both worlds swimming-wise and academically. I enjoy the process here. I’ve gotten into different things and learned so much, and I have a great group of girls around me who push me every day.
13. And having a coach who tries new things like Teri McKeever does, what’s that like?
Kathleen: Teri is super innovative, doing things out of the box like no one else in the world -- that’s one of the things I liked about coming here because that’s how we did things at (SwimMAC), and I do well in that kind of approach. I also think it’s interesting and benefits me -- and keeps me really sharp.
14. Did you get to sightsee in Rio?
Kathleen: I didn’t get to do too much, fun. I only stayed a couple of days after we swam. But Rio was a smaller venue, so I did get to see my family and knew where they were sitting. They got to come down to the railing when I got my medal -- and that was great because I couldn’t wait to see them after I won the medal. But they got to see way more of Rio than I did.
15. What was that like, getting the gold and hearing the National Anthem?
Kathleen: I remember standing up there and taking it all in, I thought it was the coolest thing in the entire world, hearing our National Anthem on the podium. It’s the best feeling I can ever describe. I remember standing there and thinking this will be the first-ever gold medal I get and this moment of it being the first time won’t be recreated again, so it really meant a lot to me. Plus, there were so many fans there who were really into swimming which made it memorable for everyone.
16. How cool did Budapest end up being -- seems like they exceeded all expectations in every regard?
Kathleen: I loved the venue and we walked out in smoke! I couldn’t wait to swim the 200 and I knew it would be unbelievably loud. You couldn’t even hear the person next to you. Honestly, that just really motivated me and got me excited for the race. It was one of the coolest venues I’ve experienced.
17. Did you see more over there?
Kathleen: Yes!, Elizabeth Beisel and (former National Teamer) Teresa Crippen -- we stayed a couple of days in Budapest and saw the castle, parliament, the markets, just to see what Budapest is all about. That was super because it’s something I’ve rarely been able to do.
18. Swimmer of the Year at last year’s NCAAs -- maybe the most contested meet for that event with the world’s best swimmers on the women’s side, what did that honor mean?
Kathleen: It was so amazing. I didn’t even really expect it, to be honest. I just really wanted to go out there and do my best, though, I know winning three events (and second place in the 4x200 relay) is super hard at NCAAs, I couldn’t ask for more. I was so relieved when I finished the 200 back to come away with the win. And given the fact that the coaches vote on it, I was a little surprised, and very honored.
19. What’s it like swimming against those women who are your teammates at Worlds and the Olympics?
Kathleen: Honestly, I think it’s just what we’re used to now. It’s incredible how many Olympians from the U.S. and around the world are at NCAAs. I do cheer for my teammates who swim for other schools, so every final at NCAAs has my Cal teammates and my U.S. teammates. It’s just incredible how many of them do so well managing both that and international events. There’s an entire group of us doing that, and I think it sets us up well for NCAAs to have those experiences.
20. How did you make that big leap the past nearly two years to the “next level” in so many important ways?
Kathleen: I think, to be honest, what I learned is how I need to swim from a place of being relaxed, knowing what I can swim and am capable of. I have learned a lot about myself at all these meets, and with the experience from each. And I’ve really grown in my confidence level. You work up to realizing you can be in the top three, you realize you can be in the top three, and then you want that podium, that medal, and that gold. You just keep working and setting the bar higher.