The Olympian is taking home two medals despite the modified training schedule she needs to stay healthy.
Winning multiple medals and scoring a personal best at the Olympics is a pretty amazing feat in and of itself. But the fact that swimmer Kathleen Baker did all that last week after years of battling Crohn’s disease—and sacrificing practice time in the pool to keep herself healthy—makes her accomplishment even more worthy of applause. The 19-year-old placed second in the 100-meter backstroke, and helped her team finish first in the 4x100-meter medley relay.
Speaking with the New York Times in July, Baker recalled her diagnosis with Crohn’s—a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that can affect everything from digestion to immunity to energy levels—in middle school. She’d begun feeling ill, losing weight, running a fever, and complaining of fatigue. After several tests, including a colonoscopy, a doctor emailed her parents the results.
Baker, already nationally recognized in the pool, researched Crohn’s disease and read about people who needed to have their intestines surgically removed. “It was the worst feeling in the world,” she told the Times. “I love swimming more than anything in the entire world, and I thought my swimming career was over.”
Over the next few years, Baker tried several treatment plans, including daily pills and monthly intravenous injections. She also suffered from several immune-related complications, including whooping cough.
But with the help of her doctors, Baker eventually found a treatment that helps manage her symptoms. She still follows that plan today, giving herself biweekly drug injections in her abdomen—a regimen that requires her to fill out extra medical forms and travel with a kit of syringes and medication when she competes.
She also limits her practices in the pool to just once a day (most Olympians do double that) to maintain her energy and reduce her risk of flare-ups. And when her competitions have gotten especially stressful in recent years, she’s reluctantly sat out certain events.
Health’s medical editor, Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, says that Crohn’s disease can vary from mild to debilitating: “For some people, it can be well controlled with oral medications and careful diet, while others with moderate to severe cases may require IV medicines or injections or sometimes, yes, even surgery."
Regardless of its severity, she adds, Crohn’s disease is more than just a stomach problem. “It does include typical GI symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain, but it really can affect quality of life beyond just that,” she says. “It’s considered an autoimmune condition that can affect the whole body, and it’s something that people need to manage for their whole life.”
Dr. Raj, who is a gastroenterologist, has not treated Baker. But she says the swimmer’s achievements are impressive for someone who has clearly faced many obstacles related to her condition.
“The fact that she’s been able to manage her symptoms well enough to maintain that much energy and stay so competitive is really inspiring,” she says. And she hopes others with Crohn’s disease will see Baker as an example of what’s possible—not as an exception to the rule.
“Because the disease varies so much from person to person, the most important thing is to get the treatment you need so you can be healthy and energetic,” she says. “We always try to help patients achieve whatever their goals may be, by finding ways to manage their disease in a healthy way.”
In fact, the Times reports, Baker is not the first American Olympian with Crohn’s disease; retired kayaker Carrie Johnson competed in 2004, 2008, and 2012 after being diagnosed in 2003. Other professional athletes and celebrities with Crohn’s include NFL quarterback David Garrard, NHL player Kevin Dineen, and actress Shannen Doherty.
Fellow U.S. swimmer Katie Meili recently spoke about her admiration for Baker, and her friend’s triumph over Crohn’s disease to win silver in the 100-meter backstroke.
“Now that Kathleen’s story is a little bit more public—and I’ve said it many times before—she’s the toughest and most resilient person I’ve ever met,” Meili told the Charlotte Observer last week. “For her to win that medal, I don’t know anyone more deserving.”