Since turning pro last spring after her final races at NCAA Championships, Kathleen Baker has experienced tremendous success in the water – never doubting her decision to forego her final season at Cal-Berkeley.
Considering she won three events last summer at Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships – setting a new world record in the 100 backstroke – followed that performance with a gold medal in the 200 back at Pan Pacific Championships (along with three more medals) and ended 2018 with four medals (one gold) at Short Course World Championships, Baker has good reason to be happy.
Still a student at Cal (she will graduate in May), she said she’s learned a lot during the past year as a professional swimmer – and she knows she still had more to learn.
But she’s definitely enjoying her life as a professional swimmer – and she takes another step this weekend at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Knoxville, where she’s slated to swim all the backstroke events as well as the 200 individual medley.
“It (turning pro) was the right decision for me,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed being able to participate in World Cup meets and travel this fall. And while I may be a pro now, I am still a student. I had to take a math final in between prelims and finals at (Short Course) Worlds.
“On top of school and training, there are a lot of responsibilities and obligations to juggle which I’m glad I have this year to adjust. I will graduate in May, so I am looking forward to being a full-time professional swimmer heading into 2020.”
Juggling multiple responsibilities is nothing new for Baker – an honor student and multiple NCAA Champion and All-American during her time at Cal.
When it came time for her to ultimately decide whether to swim full-time or complete her collegiate career her senior year, she said she didn’t take the decision lightly.
She had been thinking about the option to turn pro for quite a while, but there were two factors that ultimately helped make her decision a little easier.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and with the Olympic schedule and my Crohn’s Disease, it’s just what made sense for my timeline,” she said. “Last spring, I began to talk with (Head Coach) Teri (McKeever) and (Assistant Coach) Sarah (Dunleavy) about how it would work out.
“I also consulted other pro swimmers, and of course my family. Obviously, the hardest part of going pro was that I would not be able to compete in my senior season but having the support of teammates meant a lot.”
One of those swimmer friends she consulted was Missy Franklin, who also left her collegiate career at Cal early to focus on swimming and the 2016 Olympics.
But Baker recognizes that their circumstances were very different and what Franklin experienced didn’t affect her decision.
“Of course, there are some uncertainties and you never know what the ‘right’ move will be ahead of time, but Teri and Cal Athletics as a whole helped me in navigating this process,” Baker said.
Even with all the “flux” that her life in and out the water has experienced this past year, Baker said her core love for the sport remains unchanged from when she started summer league as a 5-year-old.
She loves it just as much as she did when she started, and she’s always embraced her natural competitive nature and how that translates to success in the water.
“I’ve always loved how competitive swimming is and how I can push myself to be better every day,” said Baker, who will graduate with her degree in public health in May. “Unlike many sports, swimming gives you the opportunity to control a lot of your success as an individual sport, while still having the camaraderie of a team.
“There’s always something to focus on and improve, so it’s easy to set goals both big and small and that keeps me going now.”
Not one to need extra incentive to motivate her during her training or for future meets, Baker said her recent performance at Short Course Worlds – particularly finishing second in the 200 back and fifth in the 100 back, an event she has owned lately – has given her something to work on heading into this summer’s World Championships, albeit those are a long course meet.
A self-professed long course-preferred swimmer, Baker said she struggled with hitting the lane lines during recent Worlds but knows that won’t be the case the rest of this season and next heading into Olympic Trials.
Still, she said it was one of the most enjoyable meets she’s been to in a while – and that was because of what her teammates were accomplishing in the water.
“Whenever someone dove in it seemed like it was a record-breaking swim which is super inspiring,” she said. “Just goes to show that sometimes meets aren’t all about times, and it’s important to not get in your head about it and just enjoy the moment.
“I was a little disappointed because my times weren’t where I wanted them to be. I actually swam faster this fall in World Cup; however, it was one of the most fun meets I’ve ever been to. It was such a good group of girls, and a really exciting atmosphere.”
And despite 2020 Olympic Trials being just 17 months away, Baker said she’s excited for her preparation leading up to that meet – taking everything one meet at a time.
She said she will spend the next year-plus focusing on “fine-tuning the details” of her races – using this spring and summer to get ready for her third World Championships, where she has yet to win an individual gold medal.
But already owning an Olympic medal (silver in the 100 back in Rio), Baker knows what it takes – and what it will take – to reach that level again.
“Right now, I’m focused on 2020 but I’ll never say never (about swimming through the next Olympic cycle to 2024),” she said. “I honestly don’t see myself ever not loving swimming, and it’s great to travel the world with my friends.
“I’ll just reassess year by year, and also base it on how I want to advance my career past swimming.”