IRVINE, Calif. – Kathleen Baker did what Katie Ledecky came close to multiple times at the 2018 Phillips 66 National Championships.
She set a world record.
“I watched a lot of Shark Week,” Baker said, “so I was channeling my inner shark there.”
Baker’s time of 58 seconds flat in the 100-meter backstroke was the first long course world record set on U.S. soil by a swimmer not named Ledecky since the full-body rubberized suits were banned in 2009 and first of the meet, which is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
Baker is also the first American to hold the world record in the event since Natalie Coughlin swam 58.97 at the 2008 Olympic trials in July 2008; Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry lowered it to 58.77 the next month in Beijing.
Ledecky was ahead of her own world-record pace in the 400-meter freestyle through 250 meters Saturday, then fell off a bit while still posting the 10th best time in history of 3 minutes, 59.09 seconds. She now owns the top 11 times and secured her 16th national title and third of this championships. She will not swim the 1,500 free Sunday.
Baker’s coach, David Marsh, heard the crowd rise up in excitement during the 400 and told his swimmer, “You know what this crowd needs tonight? It needs a world record.” She goes, “It does!”
And Baker – the 2016 Olympic silver medalist in the 100 back and gold medalist in the medley relay – came through. She shaved a tenth off the existing record set at the 2017 world championships by Kylie Masse of Canada, a race in which Baker also won the silver.
Baker came out wearing pearl earrings and her blue Uggs – “my good luck charms,” she said. She then burst out to a 50-meter time of 27.90 seconds, .63 ahead of the field, and closed in 31.10 seconds, also faster than anyone else. Olivia Smoliga was second in 58.75 seconds, followed by 16-year-old Regan Smith, who set a world junior record of 58.83.
“I’ve always been someone to go out fast,” said Baker, who was also fired up by teammate Katie Meili placing second in the 100 breaststroke to punch her ticket to Tokyo for the Pan Pacific Championships earlier in the session. “I have a lot of adrenaline when I swim and I get really excited to race. Usually I don’t’ feel that fast until I do the turn and then I’m like, ‘Oh wow that hurt a little bit,’ but I wanted to really push it tonight.”
Baker and Smith had tied for first in the 200 backstroke on Thursday, a rarity in swimming, but this victory was all Baker’s.
“I was looking to see if I won first and then I realized I went 58.0 and I was literally, like, shook,” said Baker, who took more than half a second off her personal best and .77 off her best time this year. “’Oh my gosh, I just broke the world record!’ I’m so happy right now.”
Of course, she also broke the American record, Missy Franklin’s 58.33 set at the Olympic Games London 2012.
But it was 58.10 that was not only on Baker’s mind, it was on her phone. And every night at 8 p.m., it flashed on her screen.
Now it says 57.99.
“Last year 58.5 was my goal and to come back and drop another half a second at 21 years old is pretty great,” said Baker, a rising senior at the University of California, Berkeley.
It’s even more remarkable since she is living with Crohn’s disease, which causes inflammation in her digestive tract.
While Baker doesn’t dwell on it in interviews, Marsh said the disease affects her every day.
“This morning she came and looked puffy-eyed and rough and I said, ‘I’m glad you slept in until 10 o’clock this morning,’” said Marsh, who has coached her since Baker was 14 and would come to practice early to watch the elite swimmers train.
Marsh said Baker always wants to train at race pace.
“She’s so feisty and competitive,” he said.
Before each practice, Marsh looks at Baker’s face and asks how she feels. “If she doesn’t say excellent or outstanding, I know she doesn’t feel good,” he said. “If she’ll say pretty good, we have to back off some. I’m constantly adjusting her program every day.
“There’s windows when she has to go get her shots, and when she gets her shots it takes almost a week to get normalized. Sometimes it’s noticeable that she’s sort of losing herself a little bit, and then she has to get her body back.”
Yet whenever she could, Baker pushed hard. This year she added more strength training, including squats, to her regimen, which helps her legs at the end of the race. She also took up surfing, with Marsh now coaching in San Diego.
“I focused on more backstroke training this year, did a 200 back in practice hard every single week this summer,” Baker said. “That helped me get used to the pain of doing a 200, which made the 100 feel even easier.”
At Pan Pacs in two weeks, she will face Masse and Emily Seebohm of Australia, the 2017 world bronze medalist.
Baker already knows where she can make up .01 and lower her own world record.
“Almost not hitting the lane rope when I do a flip turn might help,” she said. “I almost smacked my face on the lane rope turning over, so I think I was moving a little quicker than I thought. So, I’ll be just fine-tuning some things and there’s always ways to improve.”