Kathleen Baker can add more gold to her metal collection now that she received the key to the city of Winston-Salem on Saturday.
Families, friends and swimmers waited for hours outside of Swim Gear of North Carolina in the Stratford Station shopping center Saturday morning to get a chance to meet the 2016 Rio Olympic gold and silver medalist.
“It’s been such a surreal experience,” Baker said. “To come away from the Olympics with two medals is an incredible thing. Standing during the medal ceremony for my gold medal, I thought, ‘This is literally what I dreamed about since I was 5 or 6 years old.”
Baker said she was focused at the Olympics but also wanted to have fun.
“It’s one of those meets that I just had fun at,” she said. “It’s definitely less stressful than trials because we’re just enjoying being there. I think that’s why Team USA always does so well, because we’re just loving being there and being a part of the Olympics.”
Baker said that being in Rio was an enjoyable experience outside of the pool.
“I really liked meeting all the other athletes from all the other countries,” she said. “We all eat in the same place — every single country from every single sport. We’d see tall people and try to guess like ‘Oh, that’s definitely volleyball’ and it’s like ‘No, we’re handball.’”
Baker was overwhelmed by the amount of support she received from residents of Winston-Salem, not only at Saturday’s events but on social media during the Olympics as well.
“I still haven’t been able to go through all the sites that I have,” she said. “It means the world to me to have so much support at home, especially when I’m out of the country and get to see clips of people watching. I really enjoyed that.”
Baker returns to college at University of California, Berkeley on Monday.
“It’ll be nice to get back to a normal schedule,” she said.
Baker said she has hopes for the 2020 Olympics but is ready to take it easy for a bit.
“I’d love to make it again, but for right now I just want to enjoy this,” she said.
The first girls to meet Baker were celebrating swimmer Georgia Davis’ 11th birthday. She signed photos, swim caps, and T-shirts for each of the eight girls at the party.
“It was so awesome (to meet her),” said one of Georgia’s friends, Dree Pender. “This is such a good birthday party.”
Dree pointed to a banner hanging in the swim shop that read “Go Kathleen! Good Luck in Rio!” and told her friends that she had signed it so many times.
“It’s very exciting,” Dree said.
Mayor Allen Joines present Baker with the key to the city.
“We’re proud to have you as part of our citizenry and for you to have started your career here at Forsyth Country Day and Forsyth Country Club,” Joines said during the key presentation. “Take this key with you to California and know how proud we are of you.”
Hundreds who showed up to welcome Baker home felt her inspiration.
Tabitha Garza brought her 9-year-old daughter Katie Beth to see the successful swimmer.
“She’s been swimming for four years,” Garza said. “It means a lot for her to meet Kathleen, because she swims in the same pools Kathleen did and she aspires to do the backstroke just like she does.”
Kris and Carrie Pinnow had been waiting for nearly two hours for their 8-year-old daughter Christina to meet the Olympian for the second time.
“I met her yesterday because I go to FCDS and she came to the assembly,” Christina said excitedly.
Christina’s parents love that a she looks up to such a great person.
“She’s a gold medalist, and she’s worked very hard to get where she is, so she’s a great role model for kids, especially for young girls,” Kris Pinnow said. “It shows you that you can do whatever you want when you grow up or even when you’re 19.”