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Cal Women’s Swimming star Kathleen Baker to turn pro

Baker won 4 individual NCAA titles and 2 relay titles in her brilliant collegiate career at Cal.

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Phillips 66 National Swimming Championships
You will be seeing more of this smile in ads leading up to the 2020 Tokyo games.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

On the heel of breaking the world record in 100 meter backstroke (58.00 time set at the USA Swimming 2018 Phillips 66 National Championships last week), Cal women’s swimming star Kathleen Baker has announced today that she will forgo her senior season to turn pro.

From the official release:

“I am excited to announce that I will become a professional athlete while finishing my degree at the University of California, Berkeley,” Baker said. “This decision will allow me to best manage my overall health and Crohn’s disease, as well as take advantage of opportunities outside the pool. College swimming has given me friends and memories that I will cherish forever. Teri and this team have helped me grow athletically, academically and personally, and while I’m looking forward to this next chapter, I will always be a Cal Bear!

”Kathleen has been an important part of our Cal program these past three years,” McKeever said. “She has helped our team to three consecutive top-3 national finishes and has been a part of numerous individual and relay championships at the NCAA and Pac-12 meets. She has also added to Cal’s legacy internationally having earned medals representing the United States at the Olympic Games and World Championships. I’d like to thank Kathleen for what she means to our program and wish her continued success in swimming and her career. She is a role model for those who have Crohn’s disease, inspiring others with her outlook and high levels of success. I’m also pleased to know that Kathleen plans to continue her studies at Cal to complete her degree requirements studying health and illness through her interdisciplinary studies major.

A 2016 Rio Calympian, Baker really bursted onto the national swimming stage with a surprising 2nd place finish in the 100 meter backstroke at the 2016 US Olympic Trials where only the top 2 finisher makes the team. Baker edged out then favorite and fellow Cal Bear Missy Franklin for the 2nd spot in the backstroke event. At the Rio 2016 games, Baker won a Silver in the 100 meter back as well as a Gold for swimming the leadoff backstroke leg in the 4x100 medley relay for Team USA.

Dating back to 2004 Olympics, the women’s 100 meter backstroke event has been dominated in the United States by a California Golden Bears. Natalie Coughlin hold that spot for about a decade before yielding to Missy Franklin (before she commit to Cal). Kathleen Baker is carrying that legacy now, especially with her recent world record in this event.

At Cal, Baker had a decent if a bit ordinary freshman year before that shocking Olympic Trials swim. After the 2016 Olympics, Baker really gained a lot of confidence to stay at the top of her swimming game. In the 2017 NCAA, Kathleen Baker won outright 3 individual events - 100 yard backstroke, 200 yard backstroke, and 200 yard IM to win the National Swimmer of the Year honor over Stanford’s Katie Ledecky. In her most recent (and last) NCAA championship, Baker repeated as the 200 yard backstroke champ. In both of these past two years, Baker led the Golden Bears in points scored at the NCAA where Cal finished 2nd behind Stanford in the final team rankings.

By winning three national titles last week - a tie in the 200 meter backstroke, 100 meter backstroke World record, and a 200 meter IM American record, Baker will next represent Team USA at the Pan Pacific meet in two weeks. She has also qualified for the 2019 FINA World Championships. The bigger goal, of course, is to make the 2020 Tokyo games.

Baker somehow manages to be a world-class athlete despite suffering from Crohn’s disease. She has been an advocate for those suffering from Crohn’s since her Olympic success; she is no doubt one of the most prominent role model for kids who has Crohn’s disease. In her official statement, Baker did cite her treatment as one of the motivator for her to turn pro. Unlike many other past and current Cal swimmers, Baker, originally from Winston-Salem, NC, actually split her training time between Cal and her club swimming coach David Marsh (previously headquartered at Charlotte but now down in San Diego). By turning pro, Baker will have more flexibility for her training schedule. Of course, it is very comforting for Cal fans to hear that she will continue to work toward the completion of her degree in interdisciplinary studies about health and illness. In her freshman year, Baker had previously talked about wanting to become a nurse once she is done swimming; now, she can be a professional swimmer first.

Recent rule change by the NCAA has allowed amateur athletes to keep the medal bonuses from the Olympics and other events as handed out by the USOC. Katie Ledecky was able to keep $355,000 of bonus earned in Rio while still retain her amateur eligibility to compete for Stanford. Missy Franklin, for the Olympic 4 year earlier, had to forfeit all those bonus money to keep her amateur eligibility and swim two years at Cal. However, it is not clear to this author, whether the World Record bonus (~$30,000 in the past) is also allowed to be picked up by an amateur athlete. Regardless, Kathleen Baker won’t have to worry about passing up on that bonus money now.

As a Cal fan, it is selfishly disappointing to hear that Baker will turn pro now rather than after her senior year. Stanford losing Simone Manuel to graduation and Katie Ledecky to turning pro may have allowed another school (like Cal) to be the favorite for the 2019 NCAA national championships, but now it’s wide open (probably Stanford being the favorite still). Nonetheless, by turning pro now, Baker can cash in on several years of advertising income. She will certainly use that money and visibility to further the good cause of helping others with Crohn’s disease. We will no doubt see plenty of Kathleen Baker and her million dollar smile in ads and TV for probably the next 1.5 Olympic cycles, if not more; we, Cal fans, will happily be able to claim her and all of her future success as our own.

Best of luck and congratulations to ‘Thleen and GO BEARS!