By Stephen Bourdeau on 19/10/09 at 5:23 pm
As ITU celebrates its 20th birthday in 2009 triathlon reporter Timothy Carlson takes a look back at the first world championships in Avignon, France, 1989.
Twenty years ago – the first ITU Triathlon World Championship in Avignon, France
By Timothy Carlson
For many of the pioneer triathletes who competed at the very first International Triathlon Union World Championship, Avignon was a tremendously fitting stage.
“When I look back on it,” says Mark Allen, “it felt right that we were making triathlon history in a place that that had so much history of its own.” Karen Smyers also felt the setting was splendid. “To place the transition and the finish right by the Palace of the Popes and within the ancient city walls made it seem very regal and an Olympics sort of place. The organizers really knew how to put on a world class show, full of pomp and circumstance.” “Avignon was gorgeous,” said Jan Ripple. “It was completely organized, a well laid-out and tough course, with high security. It felt like a huge leap forward for our sport. All of us were just thrilled to death and proud to represent out country for the first World Championships. It really felt like we were a truly legitimate sport.”
Indeed, Avignon had been continuously inhabited since the Stone Age, when troglodytes lived in caves in the Rocher des Dames, a massive rock outcropping on the banks of the Rhone. From prehistoric times, it occupied a strategic location at the confluence of the Rhone and the Durance rivers an important route for trade. But Avignon is most famous as the city to which the Popes fled in the 14th century, seeking to leave the perceived corruption of Rome. During that time, they built the Palais des Papes, the largest Gothic building in the world, surrounded by immense stone ramparts built in the Middle Ages to keep out the plague and invaders bent on restoring French control. By 1989, Avignon was a city of 200,000 famed for arts and cultural festivals – and had served as the host of several pre-ITU championship triathlons.
As the triathletes gathered for the first time under the banner of a legitimate international organizing body, Avignon’s history of resistance to inequity may well have inspired the competitors and established a fierce tradition of gender equality in the ITU. “When we got there, the organizers announced that the men would get a bigger prize purse than the women,” recalled Karen Smyers. “But the men stood up and said they would refuse to race unless there was equal prize money for the women. The organizers relented, and the ITU has maintained that principle ever since.”
Coming into Avignon, one woman stood above all others like a Colossus. Erin Baker of New Zealand is still regarded by many as the greatest all-around women’s triathlete in history. Even in 1989, there were very few women or men who could win at the Ironman and the Olympic distance. At her best, Baker dominated long and short in swim, bike and run. And she also struck fear into the hearts of competitors in run-bike-run duathlon and at the singular discipline of running.
Baker won her very first triathlon in Sydney in 1984, won the Nice International Triathlon in 1985, 1986 and 1988, won Ironman New Zealand in 1986 and 1987, won Ironman Hawaii in 1987, and won unofficial organizer-proclaimed ‘world’ titles at the sprint distance in Perth in 1987 and at the international distance at Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada in 1988. Coming into Avignon, Baker had won 34 of the last 37 triathlons she entered – and in July beat an internationally accomplished field and broke Joan Benoit Samuelson’s course record at the Bix seven-mile road race in Davenport Iowa, averaging 5:18 per mile.
Baker was capable of earning even more triathlon and running honors because she, a vociferous opponent of apartheid, was arrested for protesting a South African rugby team’s appearance in New Zealand and was consequently barred for years from competing in the United States.
At the Avignon pre-race press conference, a reporter asked Joy Hansen of the United States: Do you Americans feel you are all racing for second with Erin Baker in the field? Hansen said that Erin Baker would be a real challenge and that the Americans would have their hands full. When Jan Ripple of the U.S. was asked if the race would be a runner (Baker) versus the cyclists, she paused before answering. “Well, it’s not a road race, it’s a triathlon,” said Ripple, a muscular mother of three, a former All-American swimmer at Louisiana State University and a fierce cyclist with a great record in the pioneering short course United States Triathlon Series. “You have to ride before you run.” And so what will your strategy be? “It never changes,” said Ripple. “I always ride as hard as I can. I go with my strength and hold on as long as I can to have a chance to win.”
Ripple remembers she found it difficult to train as much as usual before the race. “Usually, I trained up to my races without resting at all,” said Ripple. “I felt if I did this I would never lose my base fitness. But with traffic, I felt it was difficult to get out there. Ultimately, that enforced rest worked to my advantage.”
Twenty years later, Baker’s recollection of Avignon is cursory, but Ripple’s memories are vivid and thankfully fill in the holes in the narrative. “It is such a distant memory,” said Baker. “I am not a person to look back, I am always forward looking. For a few years after I retired, I am sure I would have been like most athletes who like to dwell upon their own successes. But now those days are not part of my thoughts whatsoever.”
“The reason I remember my answer so well is that after the swim, Erin and I went by all the fast swimmers and rode to the front,” recalled Ripple, whose memory of the first frantic moments of the race may have been a little jumbled. The race splits show Ripple emerging from the water in 28:45, just behind Missy Morlock of Canada and 45 seconds ahead of Laurie Samuelson of the U.S., Baker and Patricia Puntous of Canada.
But once the bike started, Ripple’s memories are crystal clear. “After Erin and I went by them all, we exchanged the lead probably three times,” said Ripple. In the modern era, that would have meant a cooperative drafting alignment, but in 1989 no drafting was allowed.
Baker said the top athletes of this era had high regard for the ethos of the individual time trial regulations. “The rule was 10 meters (apart) and drafting was not considered at all,” said Baker. “It was badge of honor we all subscribed to at the time.”
On their way to a 3-minute advantage by the second transition, Ripple kept pushing. “One time as I got out of the saddle to charge up one of those rolling hills, Erin said ‘Ripple, sit down. We have a good lead. Save your legs for the run.’ I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, that’s great for your strategy, but not for mine. So I rode even harder.’”
Ripple took a look at Baker on the bike and saw some cracks in her invincibility. “I knew from the look on her face and what she told me on the bike that she was hurting,” said Ripple. “So I got more confidence and tried to stay focused.”
By the time they entered T2, Ripple remembers thinking “Obviously she had a lot of confidence in her run. But as I look back now, I know how wasted her legs were.”
For her part, Baker remembers thinking: “I wanted to get away on the bike, but I could not. I remember thinking that I could always outrun her pretty well, but that day she ran well and I ran as hard as I could, but I simply ran poorly.”
Later Baker, more puzzled than making excuses, wondered aloud what had happened. “There might have been a few factors,” she said. Dissatisfied with the New Zealand team hotel, Baker switched accommodations before the race to a site further away from the start. “I remember I had to drag my bike a long way from my hotel to the railway station and from the railway station to the race. I was probably a little stressed.”
In fact, Ripple counter-punched and took a brief lead starting the run.
Dave McGillivray, the agent who represented Ripple, Mike Pigg, and Karen Smyers, was at the half mile mark of the run and screamed at her: “Jan! You can do this! You can win the race!” “That,” said Ripple, “gave me more confidence. I just felt that my legs were hurting, yeah. But this was the World Championship and it didn’t matter of they hurt.”
Soon, Baker was back running side by side with Ripple. “It was hot and humid,” said Ripple, who was felt totally at home since she lived and trained in the steaming heat of the American South, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “Men were collapsing and everyone was getting IVs in the medical tent after the races.”
“I don’t know how long it took her to get me,” said Ripple. “We race side by side to about halfway, and then Erin started to move ahead a bit. She surged, but came back to me again and I ran even harder. We actually exchanged the lead a few times.”
But, with a little over a kilometer to go, Baker, who was infamous for her track sessions in which she began six 1000 meter repeats at 3 minutes 15 seconds and repeated at progressively faster times at Boulder’s mile-high altitude, prevailed. “She really lost me,” said Ripple. “She had more foot speed at the end.”
After a second-best 37:23 run, Baker hit the line in 2:10:00, 32 seconds ahead of her long shot challenger.
Ripple remembers with pride some remarks she recalls Baker made to her before the race. “I respected her so much as a competitor, her tough mentality and her amazing work ethic,” said Ripple, who was at age 34 six years older than Baker and a mother of three children when they met at Avignon. “Erin was always bold in her words. And she said to me, ‘In my opinion, many Americans are lazy. But I know that you, who are raising a family and racing, are not.’ She told me ‘I respect your work ethic.’”
Fellow American Karen Smyers was stunned by Ripple’s audacity challenging the overwhelming favorite. “I thought Erin was incredible and, matter of fact, I was amazed Jan Ripple gave her such a race. Oh my God, Jan showed so much courage and guts to just go for it like that and hold off Erin on the run for as long as she did.”
In fact, Smyers and fellow American Laurie Samuelson had quite a duel for the final spot on the podium. Both of them had to fight hard for the final two spots on the U.S. women’s team and were not among the pre-race favorites.
“The first qualifying race I was not near the top two,” recalls Smyers. “In the race at Columbus Ohio, I remember having a good swim, but on the bike people went by me and I remember getting very depressed and thinking ‘This wasn’t meant to be.’ Right then I made a deal with myself that I would put away my bike and be a runner. That took the pressure off, and I made a couple passes on the run. Then, when I looked ahead, I was shocked. ‘Hey, what’s that motorcycle up there with that girl?’ It was Jan Ripple and I caught her and won the race.”
Leading up to Avignon, Smyers got her first set of disk wheels. “They did help because I had used my training wheels in all my races and everybody passed me on the bike. Paula Newby-Fraser made fun of me, saying ‘When are you going to get race wheels?’ I thought I was not a good enough biker to get special race equipment. After I started to pass some women on the bike, I realized that maybe I wasn’t a good enough biker because I didn’t have race wheels.”
Samuelson had an even harder time making the U.S. women’s team. “The last of three qualifying races, Colleen Cannon earned the spot but she wanted to go to another USTS race to try to win that series,” said Samuelson. “So I was the last one picked for Worlds and there was very little pressure on me.”
Both Samuelson and Smyers said they were just happy to be on the team at such an historic event, and had no expectations of winning a medal. “I had no illusions of making the top 10,” said Smyers.
Samuelson, a swimmer at Brown University, emerged from the Rhone in 29:27, and Smyers, a swimmer at fellow Ivy League school Princeton, was 30 seconds back.
“I didn’t have that great a swim,” said Samuelson. “I came out with Baker and Patricia Puntous, about 45 seconds behind Jan Ripple and a Canadian (Morlock.).”
Smyers had an even tougher swim. “It was the craziest swim ever,” said Smyers, “Only the Ironman surpassed it with the number of good swimmers all in one place. It was kind of scary. The river had some sort of debris I ran into and it threw me for a loop. I had a little panic attack or something and came out of the water much further back than previous races.” Smyers swam 30:06, 39 seconds behind Samuelson.
Smyers, with her new disk wheels, rode third fastest and came off the bike with Samuelson and Patricia Puntous with Joy Hansen not far behind. “We ran a pretty fast pace,” said Samuelson. “The first few miles I was just happy to hang with them.”
At the 5 mile mark, Samuelson was feeling really good. “Then Karen said to me that if I felt good, I should go ahead,” recalled Samuelson. “Then she dropped back. She was not feeling good and I thought she might be having trouble handling the heat. So I started to pull away and got in front of the pack. I thought it was pretty amazing I was in third place.”
Smyers remembers it this way: “I was shocked. I would normally outrun Laurie, but she was having the race of her life.”
Samuelson got another jolt when she looked back with a quarter mile to go. “All of a sudden, there was Karen Smyers. Holy smokes! How did she suddenly get her energy back? She was a lot closer and obviously feeling better, so I did not let up at all.”
Samuelson finished with a 36:59 run, 24 seconds faster than Baker. Her 2:12:48 third-place finish was 2 minutes 16 seconds behind Ripple and 23 seconds in front of Smyers.
“It was one of the highlights of my career,” said Samuelson. “I made the World Championship team twice more, but finished 6th and 10th.”
Smyers got a boost from her finish and went on to greater glory, winning the ITU World titles in 1990 and 1995. “I had finished fourth, which way exceeded my expectations,” said Smyers. “But at most triathlons, they called all the people who were in the money up to the awards stage. But at this one, top three was everything. When I realized I was out of the medals and wouldn’t get called up, I was sorely disappointed. So I used that as fuel for the next time.”
Smyers, remembering the pang of disappointment missing the medals at Avignon, went on to win the ITU World Championship at Disney World the next year and again at Cancun in 1995.
1989 ITU Triathlon World Championships - Avignon, France
1.7km swim, 40-kilometre bike, 10-kilometre run
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Find more details about this event - 1989 Avignon ITU Triathlon World Championships