The Bear is Golden: Kathleen Baker Back on Top

kathleen baker
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

Kathleen Baker’s week at the NCAA championships had been perfectly solid, but there was one key item missing from the ledger: an individual championship.

After winning three titles a season ago on the way to NCAA swimmer of the meet honors, Baker finished second behind Ella Eastin in the 200 IM this year—breaking Eastin’s former American record in the process—and then third in the 100 back in a tight race behind Ally Howe and Beata Nelson. Her last chance would come in the 200 back.

For a full year, Baker had been tracking the American and NCAA records in that event, a 1:47.84 set by former Cal Bear Elizabeth Pelton back in 2013. It had lasted five years—and Pelton had encouraged Baker to take her off the books.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“Liz has been so supportive of me, and every time before I swim, she’s like, ‘That 1:47 is going to feel so good when you do it,’” Baker said.

Baker had swum a time of 1:48.33 at the 2017 Pac-12 championships. At the NCAA meet, she was just a bit off that time at 1:48.44. At this season’s Pac-12s, the time was 1:48.27. It took until her final individual swim of the NCAA meet to break through.

And Saturday night in Columbus, she was dominant. She pulled out to a big lead, and the record was toast. The final time was 1:47.30, a half-second faster than Pelton’s best. In a meet full of signature moments for Baker’s co-stars of the U.S. National team, that was hers.

“I definitely really wanted to put one in the books, and I know that I’m pretty confident in the 200 backstroke because it gives me more opportunity to swim,” Baker said. “That’s what I was really going for, and I had a good race strategy. I think that really worked out well for me.”

That victory ended up being the only triumph for the Golden Bears all week, but it’s worth noting just how much different Cal’s performance would look if not for Stanford’s dominance. Cal finished second in four of the five relays and third in the 4×200 free. The Bears broke existing American records in both the 4×50 free and 4×50 medley relays.

With Farida Osman graduated, Bears head coach Teri McKeever needed some of her stars to step up in more versatile roles. Baker took on a more significant role on sprint relays, as did her classmates Katie McLaughlin and Amy Bilquist.

“Even if we’re coming in second, we really have to look at how we did the best we could,” Baker said. “A lot of our freshmen stepped up, and a lot of people stepped up when they needed to. I think taking a step back and looking how we did, I think everyone’s really proud of the effort.”