Catching up with the greats: The ITU's first World Champion Erin Baker
New Zealand’s Erin Baker was the very first ITU World Champion, when she won the elite women’s race in Avignon, France back in 1989. After that, she went on to claim two Ironman titles and is one of the most successful female triathletes with over 100 career wins. We caught up with this triathlon legend at the 2011 Auckland ITU World Cup, here are some of the highlights.
ITU: First memories, just take me back from your childhood. I remember reading that your mum was concerned on your first run wasn’t too successful but she actually missed you 15 minutes before?
Erin Baker: We were a big family, working class parents and we were always into sport that’s just the thing that you did. My dad always used to say that with six daughters and he wanted to keep us out of trouble, whatever trouble meant you know, so into sport a lot. I used to swim, that was our sport and I used to run, just run to and from the pool and I decided one day to go into a running event and ended up winning it. My mother hadn’t seen me go through and she was embarrassed because she thought I was last but I was actually first.
So looking back to that 15-year-old girl winning her first cross country race, what happened, did you start running more?
I did both for a while, I was of the genre where we were swimmers from eight or nine and then at 15 you are quite old as a swimmer, so I came into running then, did that more. I was clearly not going to be an Olympian as a swimmer, and good but not great. Running seem to have suited me better and I did quite well early on with that and but then of course, grew out of running in a way too. Still that young woman sort of thing, 18 or 19, quite a lot heavier, and not really sure where life is going. And eventually three or four years after that got into triathlon.
And how did that sport start for you, obviously New Zealand has always been at the forefront over the last 25 years…
I was actually living and working in Australia at the time, I was about 21 and in Australia it was really picking up and it was really just time and place. I worked very close to an area which had the triathlon at the time, it was a place called the Royal National Parks and so I thought great, I’ll do that. I had started biking to work and run to work at bit, I think primarily for money as I didn’t have a lot of money and so I entered it and I won it. But I had remembered seeing Allison Roe win an event in New Zealand called the Les Mills triathlon and Les Mills is still huge in New Zealand gym in NZL and worldwide now, and so I knew of it from NZL but actually started it in Australia.
And take us now from, you have gone from winning a few local races to this taking a bit more a priority and thinking that this could even be a career. How did that transformation occur?
Well very quickly I did two or three events in Australia, I went to Noosa and did an event I won it, and went to a race called Coral Coast up in Cairns and I think I got second in that and then did another one. And then I knew about this big event going to be held going to be held the next year in a place called Forster I believe, I really don’t know how I knew about it so well, cause the internet wasn’t part of life and I certainly wouldn’t have bought magazines, but I did know about it. So decided for some reason it would be best to go back to New Zealand and train, probably again financially and I was working and living right in the middle of Sydney. So I went back to NZL and trained, sort of hooked up with John Hellemans through my running club and he sort of gave me a rough idea what I should do. And I came back to this event in Forster Tuncurry and won it, won 12,000 dollars, which was like a year’s pay. Lifechanging. Then John put me on a road, a sponsor, Koga-Miyata I think, it was a bike company from Holland, ended up going to Holland and stayed a bit with his family, stayed in places by myself, stayed in Germany in the middle of barns I didn’t speak any language and just trained all day. Eventually, I think the same year actually, this guy turned up in a black BMW from Le Cog Sportif and he was like, ‘we want to sponsor you’, for like six years or something, it was just mindblowing, it was ridiculous. A couple of weeks later I got flown to Paris and signed this contract with Le Cog Sportif, they had a sub contract with Look bikes and they paid me money and I remember being in Paris thinking ‘Oh my god, what is this.” I went out and there was a shop next door, like a Louis Vuitton or something that I would never ever thought of purchasing something from there in my life and I bought a pair of sunglasses and thought “I’ve done it, I’ve made it.”
You were known as a woman who really stuck up for her principles, Les McDonald attributes one of the reasons to why there is equal prize money, equal distance today because of people like yourself who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
It’s really lovely to hear that Les might say that, I was just inducted into the Cantebury, which is my area, Hall of Fame, and they asked what would I like to be remembered for and I said ‘being a fair player,’ that’s all I want people to know of me.
On her memories from the first ITU World Championships:
I remember Jan Ripple being up with me on the bike and I’m sort of going I can outrun her, I remember the big bridge we had to swim under, and I remember, I don’t even remember what the prize money was but I remember getting a pink and white striped dressing gown, and Mark (Allen) got one as well. I had it for years and years.
The record you have, I think 104 wins out of 121 races, is impressive. Do any one or two of those races stick out in your mind as ones where I was just ‘on, just invincible?
There was two, one of the Nice races where I won I think by 40 plus minutes and I was completely on. I used to think of myself as (Norwegian marathon runner) Grete Waitz when I was running well, I felt like Grete Waitz and I ran unbelievably. And then the same thing was in Penticton (Ironman Canada) and the same thing happened there. I never ate or drank on the bike, I had done a few Hawaii’s and won one and got second and maybe pulled out of another or whatever, and I needed to do something about my nutrition on the bike and I remember I got this drink called banana gatalode and I remember it was the only thing I could actually stomach and I spent the whole bike ride loading the stuff in. It was a trial, a complete and absolute trial. I just thought I would see how this goes, and I got off the bike and I was quite significantly behind, and just – I was Grete Waitz again. I did 2 hours 49 minutes and my husband (Scott Molina) was the only one who beat me that day, he did 2.48.
How did you come to the decision to retire?
When Scott and I got together and got married, I didn’t want to do it forever and he said to me there are two ways you get out of sport ‘you retire or it’s because you are injured,’ and I didn’t want to be the latter. I’ve always been very clinical, and in the past I’ve come across as quite left or right, and so I knew, I was done with it. We already had our first child, Miguel, I wasn’t even actually really going to compete again after him but I got a good offer of a sponsorship from Reebok and it changed. I was over it, I had done enough of it, I’d had a great life, I can’t believe I had been in the sport that long and I’d got a fabulous husband out of it, but I was done. It was on to the next thing.
What makes your husband, Scott Molina, such a unique guy?
No-one could have supported me, he’s not got a selfish bone in his body, he knows how to love people and he’s kind and he has enabled me, right back to my triathlon career to do everything I wanted too and often probably at the time I didn’t realised it, he sacrificed himself to do it. He still does that today, what I want to come normally comes first and he supports me without question and I can tell him any day, we are out tonight were off to do this, he does it. And he does it in a way that no-one would know that he didn’t want to be there. He just is always, he’s a great people person. People love him, everyone loves him.
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