Kathleen Baker didn’t let Crohn’s block her olympic dream – now she’s ready for another
"I realised that it doesn't really matter how hard I'm going to train if I'm not healthy."
When swimmer Kathleen Baker started shedding pounds at the age of 12, she knew something wasn’t right, but was hesitant to admit it. She was already an elite athlete at that point with not much weight to lose. “I ran fevers for weeks and weeks on end,” Baker said, “I had pretty much every gastrointestinal symptom you could think of: diarrhea, blood in diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, stomach pain.” And, the longer she went without some sort of treatment or diagnosis, the worse she became. After a few months, in June of 2010 she learned that she had Crohn’s disease.
“I went from breaking national age group records at 12 to not being able to do a whole practice due to straight up exhaustion and symptoms I was having,” Baker explained of her Crohn’s, which is classified as chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that can spread to any part of the digestive tract. Getting the diagnosis was devastating for her. “I love swimming more than anything in this world, and I just couldn’t comprehend why I deserved to have something like this, where I felt like my swimming was going to be taken away from me,” she said.
Crohn’s, however, didn’t stop Baker from winning two medals in the 2016 Rio Olympics (gold in the 4x100m IM relay; silver the 100m backstroke). It didn’t stop her from setting world records, either. She found doctors who she said supported her goals and understood that she was so much more than “just Kathleen with Crohn’s disease,” she noted. She had Olympic dreams, was a competitive swimmer, and also wanted to do things that teenage girls were able to do (aka, go to school and sleepovers, she said).
Being an elite athlete with Crohn’s means that Baker has to take it easy during practice if she feels sick, and she goes through cycles of remission and flares. She said she typically will have about seven swim practices a week, while most high-level swimmers have nine to 10. “I realized that it doesn’t really matter how hard I’m going to train if I’m not healthy,” she told POPSUGAR. “All that matters is me being healthy, and if that means doing two less swim practices a week than everyone else, then that’s what I’m going to have to do.”
It’s also a matter of managing her medication, and she’s been on a few over the years, the first of which she said required her to be in the hospital every six weeks to get an infusion. Now, she has to give herself injections of medication into her stomach. Switching up treatment, she said, isn’t easy. “That’s a very big deal as a Crohn’s patient. There are not a million medications in the pipeline and, at 17, I’d already burned through a couple of them. These are heavy-duty drugs,” she explained. “They’re not mild medications where you just take a pill and you’re fine.”
Baker has to be extra careful not to train too intensely, she said, because of her weakened immune system. “I go through phases where I push myself too hard, and usually when that happens I get sick, I flare up. I have a chronic illness that also suppresses my immune system, and I take multiple medications that suppress my immune system as well, so I have to worry about getting the flu, or how strep throat for me is not just something tiny. I’m in the hospital with 103-degree fever and IV antibiotics.”
Being a swimmer with Crohn’s has heightened Baker’s awareness of water safety, something that Hayward Pools is a big proponent of, she said. “Ever since I was young, my parents have really instilled in me water safety, and it’s something that we don’t do as good of a job of in the United States as we could,” she added, pointing to the high rates at which kids drown.
Baker has embraced that her life isn’t normal and that’s OK. “It’s not going to be normal, and my normal is not someone else’s,” she said. She’s proud to be a part of the Crohn’s and colitis community (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are the two most common types of IBD). She wants kids to know that they don’t necessarily need to change their dreams because of their illness. “My path,” she said. “has been amazing, and hopefully it continues going well.”
Read full story Kathleen Baker didn’t let Crohn’s block her olympic dream – now she’s ready for another by Samantha Brodsky.