It was a boisterous lot that crowded the line. Kids, would-be jocks and serious beer drinkers all jostled for advantage before the gun sent them off around the Rangiora racetrack, near Christchurch, New Zealand, in the traditional cap to a local sheep-processing company's annual picnic. The beer drinkers quickly lost interest—a mile being more than they had bargained for—and they dropped off red-faced and chuffing. Pared down to the strong and anxious, the pack pushed on through the bright New Zealand sunshine. Those with the energy uncorked a final sprint on the last turn, but when the sod had settled the fastest of them all was 12-year-old Erin Baker, whose father was a company foreman. That happened 16 years ago.
Since then, Baker has shown her heels to a far more illustrious crowd than the mob at Rangiora. She won her first swim-bike-run in 1984 when she was living in Sydney, Australia. She had entered that race mostly in hopes of winning the first-place prize of two round-trip plane tickets to her native New Zealand. Since then, she has won all of the world's major triathlon races and most of the minor ones as well, often by colossal margins. In the past three years Baker has won 34 of the 37 triathlons she has entered. "When Erin's out there, you know that in most cases you're the one aiming at second," says Paula Newby-Fraser of Zimbabwe, who now lives in Encinitas, Calif., and was the last woman to hand Baker a defeat in the triathlon.
That loss came in October 1988 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, at the Ironman Triathlon: the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run that serves as one of sport's most visible versions of purgatory. Baker arrived in Hawaii as the defending champion and prerace favorite. However, Newby-Fraser ran away with the Ironman women's title, the course record (9:01:01; the previous mark of 9:35:25 was held by Baker) and $28,000 in prize money after Baker snapped three spokes midway through the bike leg and was forced to stop for three minutes to change wheels.
Baker held on for second place, and that finish set up what would have been triathlon's equivalent of an Ali-Frazier showdown. Baker, however, had already announced that she would not be in Hawaii in 1989. Though she would continue to compete in a few triathlons, she wanted to try her hand at running by taking a stab at several major road races, including the Chicago marathon last October. Her goal for that race was a sub-2:30 time and a finish in the top three—lofty aims for someone who had never run a marathon without swimming and bike races attached. Early in her triathlon career, Baker earned the animosity of some of her competitors with her brash prerace predictions of her finishes, and she compounded the damage by usually making good on her promises. That animosity was heightened by the fact that Baker had little contact with most of her competition. A vocal—and visible—protester against South Africa's racial policy, Baker was barred by the U.S. from competing here because of her arrest following a demonstration staged by members of New Zealand's antiapartheid movement. She raced primarily in Europe and Australia and did not set foot in the U.S. until 1986. She appeared in Hawaii only after Ironman organizers pulled the right strings and freed her frozen visa. "Nobody really understood her," recalls fellow triathlete Colleen Cannon. "The other women raced against each other all the time and then, all of a sudden, there would be Erin Baker, and she'd kill us." Cannon attributes Baker's early problems to her extremely direct manner. Says Cannon, "Erin just says what she's going to do and does it."
Baker is alarmingly straightforward. Since her decision to take a shot at running, she has publicly stated she is capable of a 2:26 marathon (the women's record, held by Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen, is 2:21:06). Barring injury, she also believes she has a good chance at a berth on the 1992 New Zealand Olympic team—if not in the marathon, then possibly in the 5,000- or 10,000-meter races. Underscoring Baker's self-confidence is a work ethic that would make a Parris Island drill instructor weep with joy. At her peak Baker has been known to put in seven-hour training days. "I don't think there's a woman out there who puts in the amount of work she does," says Newby-Fraser. "I would literally be hospitalized if I tried to do the training she does."
For the past two years Baker has split her time between Lyttelton, New Zealand, and Boulder, Colo., taking advantage of the inverted seasons to spend summer in both her homes. Her husband is Scott Molina, an American who has won some 90 triathlons, including the Ironman. Molina and Baker met two years ago at a triathlon in Provo, Utah. At the time Molina was nearing the end of his first marriage and Baker was coming off a two-year relationship. "The first thing I said when I met her was, 'Well, what's it like to be single?' " says Molina. "She said, 'I hate it.' " The two shared breakfast and a movie, and when Molina's plane left for Boulder three days later, Baker was on it. After a six-week courtship, Baker moved in with Molina. They were married in February.
The two train together regularly and while Molina is the faster swimmer and biker, Baker has at times proved more than a match as a runner. "I've never run with a woman who can go that hard, that fast, that long," says Molina, who admits that being one-upped by a woman required "an adjustment."
Recently it has been Baker herself who has been making the adjustment—from multisport training to strictly running. In her first marathon, in Pittsburgh, run in biting winds that dropped temperatures to as low as 24 degrees, Baker ran 2:36:57 to finish third behind 1988 U.S. Olympic marathoner Margaret Groos and Italy's Graziella Striuli.
Last year, after banging out triathlon wins in California, Japan and Utah, Baker flew to Davenport, Iowa, at the end of July for the Bix seven-mile road race. She chose the Bix because it had attracted a world-class field that included Judi St. Hilaire, Cathy Schiro O'Brien and Groos of the U.S., as well as Anne Audain of New Zealand. In an uncharacteristically bashful moment, Baker queued up behind the elites at the start. She stayed there for one mile, then at the top of a steep ascent, she blasted past the lead women. Figuring she was after the $500 bonus offered to the first woman to reach the turnaround, the others let her go. Baker zipped through the turnaround and kept on going; her time of 36 minutes, 35 seconds lopped 51 seconds off Joan Benoit Samuelson's course record.
Most impressive, the Bix field was one at its peak. A month earlier, St. Hilaire had set an American 5K road record of 15:25.3 in Albany, N.Y. Anyone but Baker would have realized she was in heady company. "To be honest, I didn't know enough about them to be intimidated by them," says Baker, who padded her $500 bonus with a first prize of $5,000 and a new Pontiac Grand Am SE. Then she flew to Avignon, France, where she won the inaugural World Triathlon Championship the following weekend.
All of this was a tuneup for the Oct. 29 Chicago marathon. Baker's plan was to run with the leaders for as long as possible. Unfortunately, that proved to be less than a mile, and Baker struggled to a 12th-place finish, her time a disappointing 2:39:36. Along with the Chicago disappointment, Baker was forced to swallow another bitter pill—two weeks earlier Newby-Fraser had run away with yet another Ironman title and course record. Baker has won four triathlons since Chicago, but at the Commonwealth Games, in Auckland, New Zealand, last January, she failed to qualify for the 10,000.
Everyone, Baker included, agrees that she will have to give up the triathlon if she hopes to compete with running's best. At the moment, however, she is unwilling to make the move. "If I did really well I'd consider just being a runner," she says, "but at the moment, I'm a triathlete who likes to run." But with Olympics on the horizon, Baker admits that assessment could change. A final spin around the track—without beer drinkers—would be a nice cap to a career.
Ken McAlpine is a freelance writer who lives in Ventura, Calif.