Dennis Baker on comeback trail
Sometime after 11 o’clock this morning, eight swimmers will step up on the starting blocks for the men’s open 200-meter butterfly at the Intermountain Classic swim meet at the Carson City Aquatic Facility.
Most will be teenagers ranging from 16 to 19 years of age. Then you’ll have 40-year-old Dennis Baker of the David Douglas Swimming Club in Portland, Ore., who could be the father of any of those other entries.
Don’t laugh. Baker will be the man to beat in this race.
Baker — a three-time qualifier for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 1980s, two-time Pac-10 Conference champion in the 200 butterfly when he was at the University of Arizona, and the current men’s 40-44 age group world record holder in the 200 butterfly — is now in the third year of a comeback that has brought him back to within sight of his prime times. Amazingly enough, he never envisioned anything like this after he swam in the 1988 Olympic Trials, though.
“I hung it up when I was 28 and I never thought I’d be doing this,” Baker said. “But I think swimming is a lifetime sport and the people who are doing Masters now, really realize that.”
The comeback began in 2000 after he returned to the Portland area and met with his former coach, Burt Stratton, of the David Douglas Swim Club.
“I sold my business in Arizona and I was just coming back to take a break for a while,” said Baker, a David Douglas alum. “My old swimming coach hired me back as an assistant coach and he did so with the stipulation that I swim with the kids. It’s a good situation, in a real non-threatening way because it’s not someone who’s in their event and their age group. And they like trying to stay up with the old guy.”
Baker’s presence is one of the highlights of the Intermountain Classic, according to Carson Tigersharks coach Jim Puleo.
“Having a guy like Dennis Baker at our meet is just great,” Puleo said. “I think it says a lot for a sport that keeps a guy like Dennis in it. I mean, he’s not just swimming; he’s competing against people who are more than half his age. And he’s beating them.”
Baker’s personal best in the 200 butterfly is 2:00.2, which was good enough to place fifth at the 1980 Olympic Trials. By comparison, he was in the same preliminary heat — only two seconds slower — when Craig Beardsley set a world record.
Last year, Baker won the 200 butterfly by 15 seconds with a world age group time of 2:07.82 at the U.S. Masters Long Course National Championships.
“I’m surprised how fast I got back to where I am now,” Baker said. “I didn’t think I could come back as fast as I used to, but I can. My splits are virtually the same from the first 100 to the second 100 and my fade is the same, which I never thought would be possible, but it is. I just think when you’re a certain type of swimmer, that’s the type of swimmer you are.”
Don’t look now, but he hopes to qualify for the Senior Nationals (2:04.6) next month in Mission Viejo.
“After that, I hope to make the cut for the Olympic Trials. That will take a 2:03.1,” Baker said. “I have no inkling of making the Olympics. I just want to get to the Trials. I have two years to get there, and I have a lot of work to do, but I think I can do it.”
Baker swims six days a week now — “I take Sundays off unless I have a race” — with workouts very similar to those in his prime.
“I’m swimming twice a day, lifting weights twice a week, I try to get a run in, and ultimate Frisbee is a good workout,” he said. “I’m doing the full deal. Not quite as far, just a little bit less, but the same amount of time. I’ve made some slight adjustments. I have one extra recovery day where I don’t swim quite as hard because I don’t snap back quite as fast.”
Staying healthy will be the key.
“I don’t think, scientifically, you ever find out where your peak is. There’s been some tests, but I think it’s a matter of putting in the time, keeping healthy and getting your rest,” he said.
Baker placed fourth in the 400 individual medley (4:57.90) and 10th in the 50 freestyle (27.74) at the Intermountain Classic on Saturday. He has a goal for that 200 butterfly today.
“We’re at elevation, so 2:08 would be pretty good goal here. And I’ll have a couple of races before that so I’ll be a little tired,” said Baker, who will warm up for his specialty by swimming the 400 and 200 freestyles.
He also has the fastest entry time in the 100 butterfly (59.48) on Monday.
Baker is actually one of two masters swimmers competing in the Intermountain Classic. Vicky Dewey, who swam at the U.S. Masters Short Course Championships in Honolulu earlier this month, is entered in the women’s 100 freestyle today.
“Masters swimming is very competitive. I can see the day where someone over 40 will make the Olympic team. I can see that, maybe in 10 or 12 years, because of the competitiveness of the Masters and the way it’s growing,” Baker predicted. “I think that you’re going to find someone, a USS competitor who never did it before. They may get into it at, say, age 32, and by the time they’re 40, they’ll be able to do it.”