The rivalry between the University of Southern California and University of California will be on display on Monday somewhere far from the West Coast: The Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio.
Kathleen Baker and Katinka Hosszú saw to that on Sunday.
The two qualified for the women’s 100-meter backstroke final on Monday night by finishing 1-2 in Sunday night's second semifinal.
Baker, the American, slipped past Hosszú, the Hungarian, by the slimmest of margins. Baker won the race with a time of 58.84 seconds. She was followed by Hosszu at 58.94. China's Fu Yuanhui's time of 58.95 was third.
All three will swim in the final.
For Baker, who just finished her freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley, Rio marks her Olympic debut, while 2012 USC grad Hosszú is a veteran of three previous Games.
In order to get to Rio, Baker swam what she called her “perfect race” in the Olympic Trials with what was then a personal-best 59.29 behind only the University of Georgia’s Olivia Smoliga’s time of 59.02, and ahead of fellow Golden Bear Missy Franklin and Cal alumna Natalie Coughlin, considered two of the best in history of the event.
It turns out Baker’s trials performance was just a warm up. In Sunday’s Olympic heats, the 19-year-old’s new personal-best of 58.84 marked the fourth-fastest time in history. Hosszú’s time of 59.13 was good enough to tie for a fourth place tie with Denmark’s Mie Nielsen.
While this is Hosszú’s fourth Olympics, she didn’t medal until Saturday night, when She won the 400 meter individual medley with a new World Record time of 4:26.36, demolishing the existing record by 2.07 seconds and nearly five seconds ahead second place finisher Madeline Dirado of the U.S.
In 2004 in Athens, Hosszú finished 31st in the 200 meter freestyle. Four years later in Beijing, she took 12th in the 400 meter individual medley and 17th in the 200 meter IM. With heightened expectations for London’s 2012 Olympics, she faded down the stretch to finish a disappointing fourth in a 400 IM final.
“In London, I was so scared of what’s going to happen if I lose,” Hosszu told the New York Times. “It was awful, really. I just felt like: ‘This is my time; I need to show it. It’s now or never.’ I put this pressure on myself.”
Hosszú's coach, fellow USC swimming alum Shane Tusup, is also her husband. This somewhat unorthodox set-up can sometimes appear fraught due to the volume with which Tusup expresses his intensity, but both Hosszú and Tusup brush off concerns that the relationship is unhealthy.
For Baker, concerns of unhealthiness are legitimate, though of a physical nature. Seven years ago, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a condition marked by persistent gastrointestinal inflammation that can be accompanied by extreme fatigue. To make matters worse, treatments for the illness can lose effectiveness over time, making it a development that took both physical and mental fortitude to endure and keep swimming.
Baker’s mother, Kimberly, swam at the College of Charleston for a short time, and older sister Rachel was a four-year swimmer at Washington & Lee University in Virginia. This helped them appreciate Baker’s passion for swimming, and they worked to find medical accommodations that would allow her to continue to stay in the pool.
“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,” she told the New York Times.
After trying an unsuccessful regiment of a dozen pills a day and series of intravenous infusions that faded in effectiveness, Baker moved to the biweekly abdominal injections that currently work for her.
Health concerns in check, Baker was able to hone her talents with SwimMAC Carolina’s Team Elite, a Charlotte, North Carolina, club that hosts some of the world's finest swimmers, including fellow U.S. Olympian Ryan Lochte. Training with that level of talent during her formative years allowed Baker to develop holistically as a world-class swimmer.
“It helped me grow up a little faster,” Baker told the Charlotte Observer. “I learned an incredible amount, being 14 or 15 and swimming with Olympians. Handling your emotions, doing media, enjoying what you do – all of that.”
Along with representing their respective homelands, Baker and Hosszú are carrying the banners for a pair of Pac 12 schools that have a couple of the the largest contingents in Rio.
According to californiagoldenblogs.com, the Pac 12 is sending 273 athletes, coaches and staff to Rio, with 11 of Cal’s 50 athletes being women’s swimmers.
The Southen Cal-focused site usctrojans.com reports that seven of the 44 current, former or future Trojans at the Rio games have ties to the USC women’s swimming program.