Famous Triathletes: Erin Baker

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.

Erin Baker (image via legendsoftriathlon.com)

Erin Baker
(image via legendsoftriathlon.com)

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.

Sources:

Triathlon Champ Erin Baker Becomes A Woman On The Run

Erin Baker

New Zealand’s Wonder Woman

Erin Baker interview

Catching up with the greats: The ITU’s first World Champion Erin Baker

Famous Triathletes: Karen Smyers

Endurance sports, perhaps due to their inherent difficulty, have always been dominated by men. This is true for the highly popular sport of triathlon. Back then, female triathletes were practically unheard of. But as the sport grew, remarkable women such as Lyn Lemaire and Julie Moss would start to join triathlons.

Another woman in the person of Karen Smyers competed proudly alongside male triathletes as well.

Karen Smyers(image via www.enduranceplanet.com)

Karen Smyers
(image via www.enduranceplanet.com)

Who is Karen Smyers?

Karen Smyers was born in Corry, Pennsylvania in September 1, 1961. Quite avid of sports, she would join organized teams early on. Later while attending college in Princeton University, she would compete in track and field as well as swimming.

After graduating from college, she found her life incomplete without any athletic endeavor. Fortunately, one of her friends was into triathlons. She would join this friend during trainings and would find this new endurance sport quite appealing.

In 1984, Smyers raced as an amateur at a triathlon competition. She did fairly well that she would have won the $500 prize money had she entered as a professional competitor. This boosted her confidence so much that she decided to compete as an elite triathlete starting 1985.

She did not find it difficult to decide to go professional full-time when the company she worked for went underwater four years later in 1989. She was after all in great shape. Surely she could make a living competing in triathlons.

Memorable races

Smyers’ decision to go elite was certainly auspicious. That same year in 1989, she competed at the ITU Triathlon World Championships and placed an impressive fourth place win.

The following year, she would train and consequently race at the 1990 ITU Triathlon World Championships. This race was quite memorable for Smyers. Running in fourth at the marathon leg, she would chase after Joy Hanson and Carol Montgomery who were running side by side, and race leader and 1989 ITU Triathlon World Champion Erin Baker.

Having placed fourth just the prior year, all she was aiming for was to place third overall. But halfway through mile four of the marathon, she would successfully overtake Montgomery and Hanson, and eventually, Baker, thus winning her first ITU Triathlon World Champion title that year.

In 1995, Smyers made a remarkable feat after taking home first place from the inaugural triathlon race at the 1995 Pan American Games in March. Barely seven months later, she would race and subsequently take first place at the 1995 Hawaii Ironman in October. A little over a month after, she would again compete and be declared champion at another ITU Triathlon World Championships in November. So far, no other female triathlete has yet matched Smyers 1995 accomplishments.

1996 was another fruitful year for her professional triathlete career for she won the top prize at the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships. Though she was sidelined for the entire part of 1997 after cutting her hamstring from a freak accident, she was determined to get back to racing in 1998. But misfortune struck once more for she got hit by an 18-wheeler truck during one of her training rides.

Though traumatized from the accident, this did not prevent her from training for upcoming competitions. In 1999, she would be the country’s flag-bearer for the Pan American Games as well as be chosen as the United States Olympic Committee’s Triathlete of the Year. She would also place second in the 1999 Hawaii Ironman.

But her challenges were evidently not over yet. At one race, she had a terrible bike fall that caused damage to her collarbone, one that was severe enough for her to not finish, her very first DNF in her then 17-year elite career. As if that was not enough, she would test positive for thyroid cancer and be under a six-hour surgery to remove the cancerous cells in December 1999.

In 2000, Smyers boldly tried out for the US Triathlon Olympic Team though was unsuccessful in her bid. In 2001, she would be declared the USA Triathlon National Champion.

Smyers would continue to race professionally and receive prestigious awards. in 2009, she would be inducted to the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame to honor her numerous contributions to the sport of triathlon.

For a great podcast interview with Karen Smyers, visit the “Legends of Triathlon” podcast.

Sources:

She’s Always on the Move

Karen Smyers Biography

A few thoughts from Karen Smyers, Hall of Famer

Famous Triathletes: Julie Moss

Hawaii Ironman did not immediately become popular. The inaugural race only attracted over a dozen brazen folks. Though the number of competitors doubled the following year in 1979, half of them backed out due to stormy weather. It wasn’t until 1980 that more than a hundred competitors signed up, all thanks to the Sports Illustrated article about Tom Warren. But what really brought the event to world renown was broadcast media’s coverage of Julie Moss.

Julie Moss(image via einestages.spiegel.de)

Julie Moss
(image via einestages.spiegel.de)

Who is Julie Moss?

Hawaii Ironman may have been started by a group of fiercely athletic military men, but not all pioneer triathletes are hard core sporty folks. Julie Moss is one such example. Then a graduate student in 1982, her passion was surfing. But aside from this, she was not really into competitive sports.

She flew to Hawaii for two reasons. First, she wanted to experience firsthand the rigors of this race for she was doing a thesis on the training and physiological requirements of endurance sports. Second, joining the Hawaii Ironman was her way of bonding with her then-boyfriend Reed Gregerson, a triathlete. As it would turn out, her participation in the race will prove to be pivotal, both for her and for the sport of triathlon.

Race preparation

Moss firmly believes that she works most efficient when under pressure. So instead of going into training as soon as she and Gregerson signed up, she didn’t start until 20 weeks from the race. Her first plunge into training was a half-Ironman triathlon in Santa Barbara, California in September 1981, where she did fairly well. She then proceeded to join the December 1981 Oakland marathon, one that ended in disappointment after experiencing exhaustion and dehydration at mile 20 of the course.

She almost decided not to pursue the big race when on Christmas eve, Gregerson broke up with her. Though devastated, the desire to graduate was more urgent. After all, her mother who works as a teacher and put her through school single-handedly had already put a lot of money into her Kona race. So instead of sulking, she did a race in Mission Bay in San Diego, California in January 1982 to further prepare.

Two weeks before race day, she flew to Hawaii where she stayed at least 35 miles from Kailua-Kona. Intending to utilize the remaining one week to ramp up her performance on the bike, she decided to add said commute distance to her planned bike training, which overall amounted to almost 400 miles the week before race.

Race day

Moss was among the group of leading women when she emerged from the water after 1 hour and 11 minutes. Donning a Lycra skinsuit someone sourced for her instead of the usual bike shorts and tank top she initially planned to wear, she finished the second leg in 5 hours and 53 minutes. While transitioning to the marathon phase, Moss’ bra strap broke. She pleaded with a volunteer to lend hers, which the latter reluctantly surrendered.

She was trailing marathon leader Pat Hines, a professional cyclist and a member of the first ever elite triathlon group Team J David, during the third leg. However, a few miles into the run, Hines dropped out due to severe leg cramps. Moss only became aware that she was leading the race about 8 miles from finish although news crews on helicopter and camera van have already been tailing her after Hines’ departure.

Six miles from finish, Moss would start to deteriorate. She’d labor from aid station to aid station, occasionally asking those near how far her closest opponent was, who turned out to be elite athlete Kathleen McCartney of Team J David. Though she joined the race with no ambitions of winning it, it all changed when she became the marathon’s forerunner.

Running only on bananas and water the whole day as well as lacking rest pre-race, her legs would start to give in one mile from finish. She would fall a handful of times yet still be able to maintain her lead. But as she was nearing the finish line, she would stagger and buckle and eventually would be unable to hold her legs up.

Though well meaning spectators rushed to her aid, she shooed them away for she didn’t want to get disqualified. Finally, 10 yards from finish, with only her arms having their strength, she started to crawl. As she was struggling her way through the crowds, McCartney, who had no idea about Moss’ plight, ran past and claimed the women’s first prize. On all fours, Moss would plod through and crawl and cross the finish line 29 seconds after McCartney.

Moss may not have gotten first prize, but her indomitable spirit was captured on camera. The race, which is by far the most dramatic and remarkable in Hawaii Ironman history, would eventually be shown on Wide World of Sports and inspire thousands to take up the sport of triathlon.

Sources:

17 Hours to Glory

Triathlon: Winner Who Didn’t Finish First

Julie Moss’ Agony in Defeat Was Appalling, But Love’s Labor Made Her a Star

Famous Triathletes: Judy Collins

Many credit then-Commander John Collins for the creation of Ironman, the most grueling multi-sport competition in the world right now. If not for his wild idea to combine the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race, and the Honolulu Marathon in one nonstop race, there wouldn’t be an Ironman in existence.

The unlikely concept for a race may be credited to John Collins, but handling the many aspects of the competition, specifically during the first two staged in 1978 and 1979, may be attributed to Judy Collins.

Who is Judy Collins?

Judy is none other than then-Commander John Collins’ wife. A housewife tending to two teenage kids in the mid 1970s, Judy would still find time to pursue her interest in sports. In fact, joining athletic competitions would become a family affair for the Collinses then, with husband and wife, as well as their two children Michael and Kristin, running in track meets together.

Judy and John Collins(image via www.thepanamanews.com)

Judy and John Collins
(image via www.thepanamanews.com)

Participation in the first modern triathlon

John Collins was in 1974 stationed in San Diego, California. Both avid health buffs, John and Judy would practically be in every masters athletic competition in and around the area, which back then weren’t that many. Having gotten wind of the 1974 Mission Bay Triathlon organized by Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan, the couple eagerly signed up.

Race day was a late Wednesday afternoon on September 25, 1974. Judy, then 35 years old, placed 30th while the Commander was somewhere in the 22nd or 23rd place. Their children Kristin and Michael placed 33rd and 34th, respectively.

Contributions to Hawaii Ironman

The Collins family had to move to the scenic island of Oahu in Hawaii in the late 1970s due to the Commander’s job. In the island, it was not uncommon for families of armed forces personnel stationed there to each take turn to organize athletic competitions.

Having issued the unlikely concept for a race during a 1977 Oahu Perimeter Relay, the Commander would often get asked by those who have heard about it. Finally, in 1978, it was the Collins family’s turn to host an event, and the husband-and-wife team ultimately decided on staging the Ironman.

Preparation for the first Ironman was of course tedious. After disseminating information about the event, Judy helped organize manpower for the upcoming competition. Fortunately, Hank Grundman and Valerie Silk, then-owners of a chain of fitness shops in Hawaii, agreed to extend support.

Then crucial details for the event such as race course, rules, and other guidelines had to be straightened out. Judy was involved in ironing out said aspects. She also assisted in the tedious tasks like assembling trophies from scratch, the design of which was created especially by the Commander.

John Collins took part in the first ever Hawaii Ironman. Judy did not join the race though. Instead, she was her husband’s support crew that day.

Triathlon in Panama

In 1980, the Collinses again had to move for the Commander got assigned back to the mainland United States. Years would pass and the couple would have no idea how popular and successful the event they had conceptualized had become. Though Kristin and Michael would represent the Collins family to a handful of Hawaii Ironman competitions for years to follow, the couple would remain unacquainted of the event’s renown.

In the mid 1990s, John and Judy were already residing in Panama, in the scenic port city of Portobelo in Colon Province. Seeing as how the city was an ideal location for a triathlon, they wasted no time in organizing competitions there. John and Judy assisted in setting up a local triathlon association as well and eventually handed down the race organizing to the said group. In 1997, John and Judy would return to Hawaii Ironman and from then on would serve as ambassadors for triathlon, traveling to other countries to further spread the sport.

Sources:

Triathlon – The Early History Of The Sport

An Officer and a Gentleman – John Collins

Right Time, Right Place. Triathlon’s Roots Run Deep In San Diego.

Famous Triathletes: Lyn Lemaire

The sport of triathlon, specifically the Ironman, has always been dominated by men. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the unlikely concept originated from a close circle of friends and colleagues, led by then-Commander John Collins, a group composed mostly of men. But while this was the case, there are actually a handful of women whose contributions cannot be discounted.

There’s Judy Collins, John’s wife, who assisted the Commander in organizing the first Hawaii Ironman competitions in 1978 and 1979. There’s Valerie Silk as well, who handled the Hawaii Ironman race from 1980 to 1990 and is partly responsible for making the event the most popular triathlon competition in the world.

Female triathletes too have made significant contributions to the sport.

Who is Lyn Lemaire?

Lyn Lemaire, a native of Santa Monica, California, has always been into sports since she was a little kid. In high school, she took interest in swimming. She excelled in the sport and took part in four US national championships while still in high school.

In college, she attended UCLA and took up biochemistry. She took to the sport of basketball this time. Again, she did extremely well in this discipline that she actually played various positions at collegiate games.

In her senior year, she took her bike and did a 1,500-mile cycling trip from Vancouver, Canada all the way to Los Angeles, California. She loved the experience so much that she did the cycling trip again, only this time, she traveled around England and northern Europe. Though she covered a lot of miles on her bike, she did not really consider competing in the sport at first. For one, she thought the sport was “silly” for those who raced needed to train really hard. For another, she did not know of any women who actually did competitive cycling back then.

Then in 1975, Lemaire entered the US National Time Trial Championships and consequently placed second at the 25-mile individual cycling event. The year after, she again qualified for said competition. This time, she placed first and simultaneously set a new record for finishing in an astounding time of 1:00:06.7. The same year in 1976, she qualified for the US National Track Championships and placed third overall for the 3,000-meter track event.

She defended her title in the US National Time Trial Championships the following year in 1977. In 1978, she again took part in said event as well as the US National Track Championships, placing second and third, respectively.

First female to complete an Ironman

Being active in the sporting arena, it did not take long for Lemaire to get wind of the Ironman triathlon held in the island of Oahu. Excelling in all three disciplines included in the Ironman, she was confident that she can conquer this competition as well. So she flew to Hawaii and enlisted for the 1979 Hawaii Ironman race.

1979 Hawaii Ironman

1979 Hawaii Ironman
(image via running.competitor.com)

The race was moved from January 13 to January 14 due to stormy weather. Originally, 28 folks signed up. But thirteen dropped out, one of them a woman, because the bad weather that Sunday morning still hadn’t subsided. This left Lemaire as the only female competitor that day and the first ever since Ironman’s inception a year prior.

Race day at the swim leg, Ian Emberson emerged first. Tom Warren soon splashed out of the water, followed by John Dunbar, Mike Collins, and finally, Lyn Lemaire. Gordon Haller, 1978’s winner, was still left zigzagging in the swells of the ocean for his navigator had to be rescued out of the water.

At the bike leg, Warren was leading the race and he was closely followed by Dunbar. But Lemaire soon gained in on Dunbar. Lemaire managed to maintain top speed at the bike, and was just ten minutes behind Warren. However, she had to stop eight times at the last ten miles due to leg cramps, causing her to finish second in this race.

Though Lemaire had a twenty one minute lead over Dunbar, he soon ran past her at the marathon portion. At 23 miles into the run, she hit the wall from exhaustion. Though it crossed her mind to drop out, she did not. She continued to slog through, eventually finishing the run in 5 hours and 10 minutes, subsequently securing the fifth place finish for herself.

Sources:

Lyn Lemaire

Ironman

The Fifth Best Iron Man Is a Woman, Versatile Lyn Lemaire

US National Time Trial Championships 1975-1981

US National Track Championships