RIO de JANEIRO – As a sportswriter, the first rule is “no cheering in the press box.” Well, no, actually the first rule is to make sure you get the score right, and then there’s something about spelling names right and an inverted pyramid or something and a bit about the best ways to accumulate Marriott points. But somewhere near the front is the no-cheering thing.
It makes sense really. A good sportswriter should have passion, but it is passion for the story, passion for the drama of the moment, passion for the athletes and what makes them go and a quest for justice and all that. Passion for a team or player can get in the way of that. It can make close calls look like referee blunders (or, in the extreme, referee dishonesty). It can make a person overlook the other side. Nobody would want a sportswriter to be bloodless, to lose their emotion or a love of sports. But, yeah, no cheering in the press box.
Monday, I totally blew the rule. I mean, no, I didn’t cheer out loud. But inside, yes, I was cheering like mad. Inside, I lost all sense of composure and distance. I was absolutely and with all my heart cheering for a 100-meter backstroke swimmer named Kathleen Baker.
A few days ago, I wrote a bit about Kathleen Baker and her battle with Crohn’s Disease. See, our oldest daughter has Crohn’s. We have watched the effects and damage of Crohn’s first hand, and the effects and damage will likely continue for the rest of our daughter’s life. It is a chronic disease. When the flare-ups come, when the bouts of exhaustion hit, when the powerful aversion to food strikes, we as parents find ourselves breathing the same silent prayer: “Please let our daughter live the biggest life she can imagine.”
So, no, I was not an objective sportswriter Monday night, not for this race.
Baker has endured so much as a swimmer with Crohn’s. It’s a daily thing. She endures regular treatments and constant blood tests. She must avoid many kinds of foods (dairy, corn, fresh vegetables, nuts, etc. – the hands-off menu becomes locked in your mind). She has had to completely reconstruct her training methods. Baker loved to train – on two-a-days she would beg for a third practice. Now she can only practice once per day and sometimes she has to break from training entirely just to let her body recover. This, it goes without saying, drives her absolutely bonkers.
And she has had to narrow her focus. If it had not been for Crohn’s, Baker would have had a chance to be one of those multi-gold threats – her coach David Marsh says that her four strokes are all so good that she could probably qualify for more events at the Olympic Trials than any swimmer in the country. But Crohn’s doesn’t give her that option. She concentrated on one and only one race in her Olympic quest – the 100m backstroke. With Crohn’s, she simply does not have the energy to try for more.
None of this was easy to accept, but for Baker there was really on one dream: Be an Olympic swimmer. She never stopped believing it would happen.
Yes, of course I was rooting for her. Through her, I was rooting for my daughter.
Now, I should say, I was not rooting for Baker to win a gold medal. For a story like this, that doesn’t matter. I was just rooting for her to have the best meet of her life, to be ecstatically happy when it was over. To be honest – I was mainly rooting for her to make the final. That was no sure thing coming in. She swam the time of her life in Omaha at the Olympic Trials, and it was still only the seventh-best time in the world. Eight make the finals.
But something crazy and wonderful happened to Kathleen Baker here in Rio: She found her rhythm. In the qualifying round, she swam the best time. And then in the semifinal, she again swam the best time. Baker did not just make the final, she ended up with the coveted middle lane.
“This is the first time in my career I’ve actually only focused on one race,” she says as explanation. “So I think I’ve done a lot of fine turning over the last few weeks. And it’s really come together at the end.”
Monday, as she jumped in the pool to get ready for the start, I thought this: “Come on Kathleen, swim the greatest race of your life.”
And she did.
In the end, her greatest race was good enough for a silver medal behind Katinka Hosszu, who had already won gold and smashed the world record in the 400-meter individual medley. But, again, this wasn’t about the color of the medal. When Baker looked up at the clock and saw her fastest-ever time and saw that she had won silver, well, I think of the joy of the greatest days in my life, my wedding day, the days our two daughters were born, the day I got my first byline … that was the joy on her face.
“I couldn’t be happier,” she said, but she didn’t have to say it. You could see it. Her happiness meter was at 11. Of course it was. So was mine.
When I asked Baker why she swam her three fastest times here in Rio, she gave me that answer about concentrating on one event and fine tuning, and that’s undoubtedly true. But I think there’s something else too. Four weeks ago, Baker went public about her Crohn’s disease in The New York Times. It was a bold step for a 19-year-old kid about to go to the Olympics; believe me when I tell you that people with Crohn’s don’t like talking about it.
“I prayed on it a lot,” she says.
Maybe it’s the sportswriter in me, but I think that’s why she swam her best times. When Baker was first diagnosed with Crohn’s, she would remember asking: Why? It’s the same question my daughter has asked me. It’ the same question every Crohn’s patient has probably asked at some point. Why?
But “why” is not the important question. The important question is: “What are you going to do about it?” Kathleen Baker decided she was going to go to the Olympics and when she got there she was going to tell every kid with Crohn’s that, not, it won’t be easy, and it won’t be straightforward, but you can live the biggest life you can imagine.
“I think this is something I’ve been put here to do,” Kathleen Baker says. “I’ve never given up on my dreams. I hope people are the same.”