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Brandeis Swimmer Competes For Team Despite Muscular Dystrophy

By Adam Levin

Sophomore Andrew Baker of Wilmington, Mass., hasn't scored a ton of points for the Brandeis swimming and diving team, but he's one of the Judges' most valued members. He is consistent and versatile, having competed in just about every distance freestyle race, and a couple of backstroke events to boot.

But Baker's contribution to the Judges is far deeper than mere times and places and distances.

As a toddler, he was diagnosed with a genetic form of muscular dystrophy called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disorder. His father and sister also live with the disorder, so it was easy to detect at a young age. It affects his limbs and extremities, making simple acts like walking to class or holding a pencil difficult to manage.

"I always wanted to participate in team sports as a kid, but it just wasn't a good fit," Baker said. "As my muscles started to weaken, it was suggested I try swimming as a form of physical therapy."

As he progressed, Baker was encouraged by his younger sister and his swim teachers to try the sport competitively. The coach of the local club team denied him a spot at the time, saying he wouldn't be able to keep up at practice. Undeterred, Baker kept working at it, tried out the next year, and made the team. He went on to compete for his local YMCA and his high school squad at Austin Preparatory School in Reading, Mass.

When it came time for college, Baker was looking for three things: a campus that is walkable and handicapped accessible; a strong program in Russian; and a place where he could continue to swim. In Brandeis he found all of those things.

"Never did I imagine that I would be able to be part of a college swim team until I met coach [Mike] Kotch," Baker said.

When Baker joined the team in 2014, the timing was right for a program that was in its third year after two-year hiatus.

"Andrew's character is something we needed on our team.  The timing was perfect for him to come into our lives," said Kotch, now in his fourth year leading the Judges. "His work ethic is terrific. He's never missed a practice."

Other than keeping out of running workouts, Baker puts in all the same fitness efforts that his teammates do. He's expected to meet the same challenges as his teammates: work hard to improve times, stay motivated against All-America caliber competition – the likes of which will be on display when the Judges head to Rochester later this week for the University Athletic Association championships – and most of all, enjoy the time in the pool.

"Andrew has taught me quite a few things, beyond superhero knowledge or Russian history," team captain Edan Zitelny '17 said. "I know having him on the team always pushes me to reach my full potential, just as he does, day in and day out, both in the pool and beyond."

In those 'beyond' times, Baker has had quite an effect on all his teammates. The Judges have volunteered for the last two years at the Muscular Dystrophy Association Muscle Team ® Gala, helping out at a downtown Boston event that raises money to send kids with MD to summer camp. It was a camp that Baker started attending as a child – now he works there as a counselor.

"My first experience at Muscle Team was about six years ago when my younger sister and I were chosen as Muscle Team Buddies - patient ambassadors that help to show others what it is like to live with neuromuscular diseases," Baker said. "I've been involved ever since."

It's a wonderful part of the philosophy of Brandeis and Division III athletics, Kotch said, to be involved with community service. Baker presented the MDA Muscle Team ® Gala as an option to the team, and now it's an annual part of the Judges' season. This year's Gala was held on February 11th.

As a result of his work with the MDA and his efforts as a member of the swimming and diving team despite his battle with the disease, Baker was presented with a pair of awards last year. He was named the Department of Athletics' Morrie Stein '58 Award of Valor winner, presented to a student-athlete who has demonstrated courage both on and off the playing fields and/or intervened to better the lives of others, in April. Over the summer, he was named to Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia's "Heart League" which recognized nine local people for putting "heart" into everything they do and earned him a trolley ride with the former MVP.\

Like many of his teammates, Baker takes the student part of student-athlete very seriously. He's double majoring in in International Global Studies and Russian, and minoring in Health: Science, Society, and Policy. He hopes to work in the field of disability rights on a global level, either through a government or international agency.

With all of that on his plate, Kotch sums up Baker's contributions nicely.

"I tell every kid who wants to swim here, 'If you want to be on the swim team, you need to do what the swim team does.' And Andrew has done all of that, with his head and his heart in unison. And that's exactly what we are trying to achieve with our program."

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