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Ex-Navy fighter pilot takes grounded approach to college sports

Jennifer Baker is proud of Johns Hopkins’ demanding environment. JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY PHOTO

Not yet 25, Jennifer Baker already had achieved the loftiest of her goals. After four years as an aeronautical engineering major at Navy and nearly three more in flight school, she earned the right to fly F/A-18 Hornets, which can cut through the air at more than 1,100 mph. Only months later, though, adventurous dream job in hand, migraines disqualified her from ever flying again. Only a few years removed from college, she would have to find a new path.

Now athletics director at Johns Hopkins, Baker has a work life that seems demonstrably different from the time she spent roaring through the sky, but she remains just as fulfilled, perhaps even more so. “The reality is that every job I’ve had has been me trying something else on that I thought might fit like aviation did,” she says. “And it wasn’t until I landed in college athletics that I felt like, ‘This fits.’ And it fits for the same reasons aviation fit and serving in the Navy fit. Because I’m part of something bigger than myself.”

Called to Serve

While she was spending the summer before her ninth grade year with a friend in Maryland, Baker accompanied her friend’s family on a trip to Navy. Only a teen, she wasn’t eager to visit a stodgy military academy but was enthralled after only five minutes on campus. The sense of history around every corner, the structure and the demanding environment immediately appealed to her. When her father picked her up after her time away, she told him she wanted to be a fighter pilot one day, just like in “Top Gun.”

The statement drew a chuckle from her dad, but she never wavered. Baker enrolled at Navy in 1994. She played club lacrosse — the Midshipmen won a national championship in her senior season — and relished the challenge each day brought at the rigorous institution. “I wanted to be pushed, and I wanted to be yelled at,” she says. “I wanted to be told I wasn’t good enough so that I could keep working to get better.”

Earning Her Wings

After graduating in 1998, the Navy sent Baker to flight school. After six weeks in the classroom, she finally had a chance to begin training in the sky. Her first test flights were disastrous: She was surprised the hand-eye coordination she had honed as a lacrosse player didn’t translate to the cockpit. “My hands weren’t doing what my brain knew that my hands needed to do,” she says.

After a few ugly sessions, the typically resolute Baker was on the verge of giving up her dream. She told a former Navy classmate, so he summoned her to a test plane in a hangar where they spent two hours working through the radio calls and the sequence of controls she would need to sharpen into muscle memory. Her next test flight was a success, and after nine more months of training, she earned the right to move on to train as a jet pilot, the role she coveted most. After more schooling, which culminated with landing a jet on an aircraft carrier, she earned her wings and was off to fly F/A-18s. Then, after only a few months in her dream role, the migraines began to pound, worsening whenever she was in the cockpit. Soon after, she was permanently grounded. “I never had a Plan B,” she says.

A New Path

After taking on new roles in the Navy and working as a high school math teacher and lacrosse coach, Baker enrolled at Cornell to pursue an MBA in 2010. She left with far more: While in Ithaca, she tacked on a master’s in mechanical engineering, worked as a volunteer assistant lacrosse coach and launched a leadership development program for the team’s athletes. That accomplishment earned her a chance to stay on as a full-time athletics administrator and build a comparable program, now called the Big Red Leadership Institute, for the school’s 500-plus student-athletes.

Her time around college athletes reminded her of the camaraderie she felt as a pilot. “I’m so passionate about the development that happens between ages 18 and 22 as a result of participation in sport,” she says. “It’s life-changing.”

Leadership Developed

Baker left Cornell for Under Armour in 2016 to move closer to friends and family in the Baltimore area. Within months, though, she realized she needed to return to the campus life she had found so fulfilling. A year later, she joined the Johns Hopkins athletics department and was promoted to athletics director in August 2019. Like she did at Cornell, Baker built a leadership development program at Johns Hopkins and is proud to work in an environment as exacting as the one she was drawn to when she was a ninth grader with a dream. “I tell recruits all the time, Hopkins is not the easy choice to make,” she says. “The rigors of the academics here and the competitive aspirations — that’s not for the faint of heart.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.