Back in the early days of triathlon, female triathletes were few and far between. Though there were a handful of women who joined modern triathlon’s inaugural race in 1974, female triathletes didn’t figure as much in the following races that were staged. In fact, it was not until 1980 that a female triathlete in the person of Lyn Lemaire competed at the second ever Hawaii Ironman race.
Triathlon has since then been regularly participated in by women. There’s Karen Smyers, for instance, as well as Julie Moss. And then there’s Erin Baker, who was not only well-loved for her astounding performance in races, but was also well-known for her advocacies that would later change the way triathlons were conducted.
Who is Erin Baker?
Erin Baker, a native of New Zealand, is considered by many as one of the best female triathletes the sport has ever seen. Baker’s first foray into the sport of running was in the early 1970s. During an annual picnic for the company where her father worked, Baker decided to join the friendly track and field race usually held to cap off the gathering.
Along with the mixed crowd of children and adults, Baker would run her fastest and would finish the race in first place. Clearly showing potential for said sport, she would later be encouraged by her mother to pursue running competitively. Following her mother’s advice proved to be auspicious for three years later at 15 years old, she would be declared champion during her first ever cross-country competition.
Professional triathlon career
Erin Baker holds the distinction of winning a total of 104 out of the 121 races she joined. But of these races, a few stand out for this remarkable female triathlete. 1984 was memorable for it was her first entry into the sport as a professional triathlete.
Racing in the world championships in Nice, France was noteworthy, too, as it was from this competition that she bagged three long course championship titles. She no doubt would have added another Nice championship title to her feat had she not refused to start at one race. She did this to protest the inequitable distribution of prizes, for it turned out, the winner in the men’s division was going to be awarded a brand new car while the winner for the women’s won’t receive a similar reward. Due to her protests, the organizers changed the directive and instead ruled that whoever gets to the finish line first gets to win the car.
In 1986, she entered and won her very first Ironman triathlon competition in New Zealand. Though Hawaii Ironman had shot to worldwide fame in 1982, Baker could not travel to the island state. This was due to a 1981 conviction she received for throwing explosive devices during a rally to protest the arrival of South Africa’s rugby team in New Zealand.
Through the help of the Hawaii Ironman organizers, she’d be able to travel to the island state in 1987 and consequently win the championship for the women’s division that year. She’d go on to take another Hawaii Ironman championship title in 1990, as well as three second-place wins in the competition.
In 1989, she became the first ever ITU World Champion. Due to this feat as well as her other contributions to the sporting world, New Zealand’s Halberg awards would choose her as the New Zealand Sportsperson of the Year.
In 1990, she represented her native country to the Commonwealth Games and bagged the Women’s Demonstration Triathlon prize. She would go on to take two more New Zealand Ironman championship titles before her retirement in 1994.
For a great podcast interview with Erin Baker, visit the “Legends of Triathlon” podcast.