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

History of Triathlon: 1999

Preparations for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games were already in full swing in 1999. In the meantime, the sanctioning body that has been greatly instrumental in finally getting triathlon approved by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) celebrated a crucial milestone during the year. Controversies around the sport’s drug testing mechanisms arose in 1999 as well.

10th anniversary of the ITU

The International Triathlon Union or ITU was established in April of 1989 by 30 triathlon-representing nations. Since the sport did not have an official international governing body, which in turn was preventing it from achieving medal status in the Olympics, the ITU was formed to consolidate all efforts towards triathlon’s inclusion in the Olympic program. ITU’s principal thrust has been achieved with triathlon finally getting included in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

Team USA chooses triathlete to carry the flag

In July 1999, Team USA met to determine who will carry the country’s flag during the Opening Ceremonies of the 13th Pan American Games. Team USA athletes nominate their choice and captains from each sport then cast their respective votes. That year, the honor went to Karen Smyers.

Triathlete Karen Smyers was USA’s flag-bearer during the Opening Ceremonies of the 13th Pan American Games
(image via enduranceplanet.com)

Smyers, as can be remembered, took home the gold for the United States during triathlon’s first appearance in the Pan American Games in 1995. And on July 23, 1999, Smyers led the 704-strong Team USA during the games’ opening ceremonies in the Winnipeg Stadium, now known as the Canad Inns Stadium in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Controversy over Ironman disqualification

It was not until 1985 that Hawaii Ironman became a professional competition wherein elite athletes could compete for prize money. And until the Ironman brand got sold to the now-owner of the race World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) in 1990, there was no drug testing mechanism in place.

Fast-forward to 1998 when England’s Spencer Smith competed in the Hawaii Ironman, who placed 5th overall in the USA Triathlon-sanctioned race. Prior to the race, Smith underwent a routine drug testing as required by the International Triathlon Union (ITU), the international governing body to which the USA Triathlon is affiliated.

Smith was informed by his national federation, the British Triathlon Association (BTA), that the lab results for his Sample A urine turned up positive for nandrolone, a prohibited performance enhancing drug. Sample B, which was taken on the same day as Sample A, was then tested on December 1998. This came up positive as well, prompting the USA Triathlon to finally disqualify him.

On March 29, 1999, Smith appeared before the BTA’s Disciplinary Panel to appeal the case. Smith won this and the BTA dismissed USA Triathlon’s charges of doping for lack of evidence.

USA Triathlon then appealed to the ITU Appeals Board on June 9, 1999, citing that the BTA cannot interfere with the case as the 1998 Hawaii Ironman which Smith competed in was not under BTA’s jurisdiction.

Smith then sought assistance from the Supreme Court of British Colombia, citing, firstly, that the USA Triathlon’s charges and subsequent appeals were baseless. Secondly, that the ITU Doping and Appeals Board cannot hear the case as it is not under their jurisdiction. All the same, on September 21, 1999, a three-person panel from ITU Doping and Appeals Board met, and dismissed USA Triathlon’s appeal for lack of evidence.

The USA Triathlon, citing section 5.11 of ITU’s Doping Control Rules which states “An athlete or National Federation that loses a hearing or an appeal to the ITU Executive Board Doping Hearings and Appeal Board has the right to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport”, then filed an appeal with the Lausanne, Switzerland-based CAS to validate the offence and therefore mete out the two-year competition ban on Smith.

Sources:

History of Triathlon Timeline

Karen Smyers’ Career Highlights

Flag Bearer “Crushed” By Selection

If Valerie Silk Had Gotten Her Way, There May Never Have Been an Ironman

Ironman World Championship: Drug Testing For Dummies

Spencer Smith article archive

Collection of Sports-Related Case-Law

History of Triathlon: 1996

Triathlon became so successful that it’s the only sport that got considered for major multi-sport events such as the Olympics, the Pan American Games, and the Goodwill Games in such a short span of time. With the sport becoming even more popular, record wins as well as variations to the sport were in the mean time being created in 1996.

Triathlon Federation changes name

Triathlon Federation USA had had its name since 1983 but it was changed to USA Triathlon in early 1996. The name change was in keeping with the long term Olympics goal of the sport’s leaders. This move was done to conform to the organization naming standards followed by other national governing bodies that are acknowledged by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).

Female triathlete wins 8th Ironman gold

Paula Newby-Fraser took home her eighth and last Ironman gold in 1996. Representing her native Zimbabwe, “The Queen of Kona” has been dominating Hawaii Ironman from 1986 to 1996, during which she would only be defeated by Erin Baker in 1987 and Karen Smyers in 1995. Paula Newby-Fraser has to date the most Hawaii Ironman victories, thus earning the honor of being named as one of the top five women elite athletes of the last 25 years by the prestigious United States Sports Academy.

Paula Newby-Fraser wins hers 8th Hawaii Ironman gold in 1996 (image via www.220triathlon.com)

First European to take home Ironman gold

Luc Van Lierde has been competing in triathlon circuits since 1990, representing his native Belgium. However, it was not until 1996 that he made significant victories.

He took the gold in the ETU Triathlon European Championships held in Szombathely, Hungary that year. He also placed second in the Cleveland ITU Triathlon World Championships. He also took home the silver medal in the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships held in Muncie, Indiana. Lastly, he won the Ironman World Championship making him the first ever European to dominate the race.

It’s important to note that these four elite competitions were only one month apart from each other. Luc Van Lierde practically had no tapering in between said competitions, yet he managed to break the existing Hawaii Ironman record by an astounding three minutes.

Off-road triathlon events take off

Triathlon became so prominent that offshoot variations of the sport cropped up. For instance, in 1996, was the first ever staging of off-road triathlon competitions in the United States, specifically in .the Island of Maui in Hawaii.

Just like its name connotes, an off-road triathlon is not your usual competition as the bike and run portions of the race are conducted in generally hilly and steep terrains instead of on paved roads.

Because this is the case, race equipment are different in that mountain bikes rather than road bikes are utilized. Furthermore, technical biking skills are more crucial than cycling speed and endurance as competitors need to navigate their mountain bikes through obstacle-ridden terrains.

Sources:

USA Triathlon History

It Was a Triumph of Iron Will: Triathlete Paula Newby-Fraser Lost the Race but Gained a Greater Victory

Luc Van Lierde ITU Results

Countdown to Kona: Cool Hand Luc (1996)

XTERRA Triathlon

History of Triathlon: 1995

Triathlon finally got the much coveted Olympic medal sport status in 1994. Countries actively participating in the sport like the United States of America, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom welcomed this development and subsequently went into full-on preparation mode for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. In the mean time, triathlon milestones were being made in the various sporting circuits around the globe.

Triathlon at the Pan American Games

1995 saw the sport’s first appearance in the Pan American Games, a major multi-sport event held in Mar del Plata, Argentina on March 12 to March 26. This is so far the second time that triathlon got included in a multi-sport event. Just the prior year, triathlon was also a part of the 24 sporting events featured on the Goodwill Games held in Russia.

Mark Allen claims his sixth gold

Professional triathlete Mark Allen dominated Ironman Hawaii in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993. Allen, who earned the nickname “The Grip” which is short for “The Grip of Death”, took a one-year hiatus from the grueling endurance race, returning in 1995 to take home the gold once more. Allen never again raced after this, presumably because his 1995 win, which happened to be his sixth, already equaled that of triathlon legend and first ever Ironman Hall of Fame inductee Dave Scott’s. This makes Allen the only other triathlete to ever hold six Ironman titles under his belt.

Mark Allen crossing the finish line in the 1995 Hawaii Ironman (image via markallenonline.com)

Female triathlete sets unbelievable record

Triathlon is undeniably a sport dominated by men. But since the sport’s inception, females have been competing alongside their male counterparts. And in 1995, one woman made a remarkable record in the history of triathlon. That year, Pennsylvania native Karen Smyers took home the gold from three different competitions.

She got first prize from the Pan American Games held earlier in the year. She also took the titles from both the Olympic-distance ITU World Championship held in Cancun, Mexico as well as the Hawaii Ironman World Championship. The ITU and Ironman World Championships were only 35 days apart, so Smyers’ extraordinary victory is certainly noteworthy and is something which is yet to be repeated by another woman.

Wheelchair sportsperson MacLean finishes Ironman

Physically challenged triathletes have been competing in Ironman ever since the event’s inception. Amputees Pat Griskus and Jim MacLaren, and wheelchair competitor Jon Franks, are notable examples. Franks’ participation in the 1994 Hawaii Ironman, although he was unable to complete the course, was what inspired Australian John MacLean to conquer the Kona course, making him the first ever wheelchair sportsperson to finish the grueling race in 1995.

Sources:

Goodwill Games

Allen claims his sixth Ironman Triathlon title

Karen Smyers – From Amateur To Full-time Pro

John MacLean