For 19-year-old American backstroker Kathleen Baker, her journey to the Olympics was not an easy one. Baker was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at 12, a chronic gastrointestinal condition where the intestines are inflamed and ulcered.
But along with the support of qualified doctors, caring friends and family, Baker was able to defy the odds against her. She won the silver medal in the 100 metres women’s backstroke event in Rio earlier this week.
“I didn’t want to be known as that sick kid,” she tells the New York Times.
Her doctor, paediatric gastroenterologist Michael Kappelman, was at first concerned Baker’s goals mightn’t be realistic given the state of her condition. Fortunately, Dr Kappelman didn’t give up on Baker and her dreams.
“I found doctors who weren’t going to be just like, ‘You’re Kathleen with Crohn’s disease.’ I need to be Kathleen the swimmer with Crohn’s disease,” says Baker
More than 75,000 Australians suffer from Crohn’s disease or related ulcerative colitis. These diseases can make it hard for people with the condition to have a normal daily life, with frequent trips to the bathroom, nausea, stomach cramps, and diarrhoea.
"The Australian Crohn’s and Colitis community is delighted to hear about Kathleen Baker winning at the Olympics," Francesca Manglaviti, CEO of Crohn’s and Colitis Australia, told SBS.
"Her struggle with Crohn’s and the determination to achieve her goals has shown our community that you can live your dreams if you don’t let your illness define you."
Baker discovered she had Crohn’s Disease after feeling too sick to stay in class one day. She was in year eight at the time.
“This is so bad, one of the worst stories ever,” she said. “I was on his [her dad's] email and an email popped up from my paediatrician saying the diagnosis.”
What followed was a sea of tests, specialists, colonoscopies, and dozens of daily pills which did little to treat her ailment.
Her parents' research online was of little help, too. All they could find were “horrible stories” of people having to remove portions of their inflamed intestines.
Nonetheless, the most worrying consequence for Baker was her disease could mean saying goodbye to an Olympic swimming career.
“It was the worst feeling in the world,” she says. “I love swimming more than anything in the entire world, and I thought my swimming career was over.”
Several high profile athletes, businesspeople, and artists suffer from Crohn’s Disease – including Pearl Jam lead guitarist Mike McCready, actress Shannon Doherty, former US President Dwight Eisenhower, and Australian Surfer Brittani Nicholl.
"I would also like to highlight the achievements of Brittani Nicholl, Australian Surfer and Crohn’s & Colitis Ambassador, who has made a name for herself in professional surfing and is currently representing Team Australia at the 2016 ISA World Surfing Games. It's people like her and Kathleen who give hope to the thousands of Australians living with Crohn's and Colitis," says Ms Manglaviti.
Baker was raised in Winston-Salem in North Carolina. After the Olympics, she will return to the University of California, Berkeley where she competes for the university’s swimming and diving teams.
Baker loves to swim and refuses to let her illness define her.
Nor has it.