When swimmer Kathleen Baker captured the silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke on Tuesday, her victory represented more than just a win for the United States. People who suffer from Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition that Baker was diagnosed with at the age of 12, had particular reason to celebrate.
“When you know something could be taken away from you, you appreciate it even more,” Baker said in the USA Swimming video above. “I love swimming more than anything in the entire world, and I think that’s what Crohn’s has helped me learn.”
No one knows exactly what causes Crohn’s disease, according to the Mayo Clinic, but the condition manifests itself as inflammation in the digestive tract, and can lead to symptoms like fatigue, abdominal pain, diarrhea and loss of appetite. While these symptoms sound mild, chronic inflammation can lead to ulcers, fistulas and malnutrition, not to mention severe pain and extreme fatigue.
In the United States, as many as 1.3 million people suffer from inflammatory bowel diseases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Over time, Crohn’s can thicken the digestive wall, blocking the digestive tract. In those cases, surgery to remove the diseased section of the intestine is sometimes required.
Digestive problems make life hard for all Crohn’s suffers, and in Baker’s case, the condition caused her to lose a significant amount of weight during her early teen years. It limits her time in the pool to one practice per day due to fatigue, a significant training sacrifice for an Olympic athlete.
For Baker, those sacrifices are worth the reward.
“I’ve had so many parents reach out to me about their kids who have Crohn’s and how much it’s impacted their lives,” she said. “Sharing that story means the world to me.”
Baker isn’t the first Olympian to compete with Crohn’s disease. Retired kayaker and three-time Olympian Carrie Johnson was diagnosed with the disease in 2003, a year before her first trip to the games.