Swimming and diving: Baker expects big things as season winds down

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By Mike Cote

He might not be Abraham Lincoln when it comes to political speeches, but Alex Baker can produce some good numbers in the pool.

Baker, a senior on the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys swimming team, already is and has been one of the top competitors in northern New Mexico, but he’s not finished just yet. Not even close.

“I haven’t really posted the best times, the times I’ve wanted to see,” Baker said during the Jan. 9 Los Alamos Invitational. “Right now I’m pushing through the state cuts. At the regular meets we qualify and we practice, but none of this matters going into state.”

With approximately one month left before the state championship meet, which will be held Feb. 19-20 in Albuquerque, Baker is already well positioned to make a splash in his final go-round.

He has qualified in six events, including posting top-six times in the 200-yard individual medley, the 100-yard butterfly and the 100-yard backstroke. He has also been a part of Los Alamos’ 200 medley and 400 freestyle relay teams that have posted among the fastest five times in the state this season.

Baker is one of just two seniors on Hilltopper boys swimming team, which co-head coach Rusty Bernstein said at the beginning of the season he thinks could make a very good showing at the state meet.

By default, Baker would’ve been named one of the co-captains of the team — he and senior co-captain Christopher (Ace) Ventura were the only candidates running for the posts — but coaches Bernstein and Cindy Black insisted he make a speech to the team prior to the selection of the team’s leaders.

Baker’s campaign speech to his teammates was concise and consisted of three key points: he was a senior, he was a longtime varsity swimmer and they were stuck with him whether they wanted him or not.

Going into this season, however, Baker said he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to be captain, a feeling that was reinforced following the team’s season-opening meet at Albuquerque Academy.

After that meet in late November, several members of the Hilltopper girls team, as a prank, went into the boys’ bags and lifted several articles of their street clothes.

While the girls may have considered it a harmless gag, several members of the boys team, including Baker, were incensed to the point that they refused to board the team bus back to Los Alamos until every stitch of clothing had been returned.

That incident caused some friction between the boys and girls teams — a rare occurrence in Los Alamos swimming — but Baker said the two teams have put it behind them and are concentrating on the rest of the season.

Baker’s big aim heading toward the final four meets of the regular season — Los Alamos lost an important meet this weekend, the two-day Farmington Invitational due to weather concerns — will be to pare down his time in his best event, the 100 butterfly. By state meet time, Baker wants to eclipse the longstanding Los Alamos High School record of 50.11 seconds.

Officially, Baker’s best time of the season in that event has been 55.27, which he posted at the Academy Invitational Jan. 16. Baker timed out at 54.48 at last season’s state title meet, which was good enough for third place.

While butterfly state champion Marcus Guttmann of Academy is gone and the door seems to be open for Baker to make a push for a state title in the event, personal glory isn’t something he’s concerned about.

“There’s always one level higher that I’m trying to reach,” he said. “As much as I’d love to see myself do good, I swim under the title of Los Alamos swimming. Even though it’s made up of individual events, it’s a team sport.”

Baker said he and Ventura have been trying to keep the atmosphere around the team as light as possible, particularly through the grueling morning and afternoon workouts during the high school’s winter break. Immediately following those demanding crack-of-dawn workouts, the team went straight to Morning Glory for breakfast burritos.

Regardless of how Baker’s season ultimately ends up, he said continuing his competitive swimming career isn’t a priority. Although he said he might swim in college, he’s far more interested in the academic side.

In December, he wrapped up a sociology course at the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos and is taking a college-level politics course this semester. He would like to get into psychology as a possible major field of study after high school.

“I want to balance academics and swimming,” he said. “I’m not going to stick with swimming the rest of my life. Life is about trying to find a balance.”