Despite challenges, Baker leads tri team

Courtesy of Duquesne Athletics | Joella Baker laughs with her athletes during a meet in the program’s first season.

Kaitlyn Hughes | Staff Writer

Joella Baker never let the challenges she faced define her everyday life. Baker was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease, in 2000, but that did not stop her from becoming the triathlete and coach she is today.

Baker is the current head coach of Duquesne’s first women’s triathlon team.

This was not her first time on the Bluff. Baker graduated from the university in 1992, where she participated in cross country, track and swimming.

The epitome of a well-rounded athlete, Baker has competed in 27 marathons, six ultra-marathons and one Ironman.

Prior to the triathlon team, Baker has coached Quigley High School’s cross country and track team, North Catholic’s swim team, spent time teaching kids with emotional disabilities how to ride horses and founded an organization known as Get Fit Families.

Through the years of being a coach and athlete, Baker was simultaneously dealing with the side effects of lupus.

“There are days when I wake up and I feel like I have arthritis all through my body,” Baker said.

She often experiences fatigue, hair loss, ulcers and joint pain.

Alongside these symptoms, Baker has asthma, Raynaud’s disease, vasculitis and celiac disease.

The coach explained that staying active is important for overcoming what ails her.

“I think if I didn’t move, it would be easy to just feel sorry for yourself,” Baker said. “Because on the days that you hurt, you don’t want to do anything. But when I move I feel better.”

Through the years, Baker has not let the diagnoses inhibit the duties of being a coach. The coach has continued to help the Duquesne triathlon team thrive.

Triathlon team captain and freshman Robyn Hunt said how Baker consistently shows up even when experiencing negative side effects.

“Watching her continue to coach and be there for us even when she is not always feeling her best is really inspiring,” Baker said. “Even though she might be having a flare up she is still there.”

Assistant Athletic Director Paul Hightower knew Baker during her time as an undergrad at Duquesne and has kept in touch with her throughout the years, but he was unaware of Baker’s battle with lupus until about a month ago.

“To me [Baker’s lupus] doesn’t come into play at all,” Hightower said. “You never see her have a bad day. She must be able to handle that both mentally and physically in her daily routine.”

Hightower said that the triathlon program had instant credibility by hiring Baker. She was working with USA Triathlon to promote the sport to different local colleges, Duquesne being one of them.

“She certainly put us on the map,” Hightower said. “People now know that Duquesne is a place to go to compete in triathlons.”

According to Hunt, Baker creates a healthy environment to help the team succeed.

The coach often suggests ideas for team bonding. The triathlon team visited a pumpkin patch, attended a Pirates game and had a team movie night.

Hunt said that Baker is different from other coaches because of the multiple different training techniques she offers, which mirror the versatility required in their sport.

Baker bought equipment for the team that tracks their arm patterns while they are swimming.

“She will find the newest ways to help us improve,” Hunt said. “She is willing and able to go look for those extra things that will help us and the newest ways that will develop all of us.”

Sophomore Team Captain Alaina Hicks has been coached by Baker since she was nine years old.

“She is very committed to developing people individually and cares a lot about us as individuals— moreso than she cares about how her team performs,” Hicks said.

Baker, with challenges of her own, realizes that the athletes experience outside pressures.

“These kids have so many challenges that we didn’t have,” she said. “And they’re showing up everyday because they love it.”

As a coach, Baker wants athletes to have a good lifestyle. This is the reason she founded Get Fit Families and has coached for several years.

Get Fit Families was created to get families active and staying healthy.

The club offers opportunities to compete in cross country and triathlon races.

Baker would hear women talk about being self-conscious about working out after having a baby. Get Fit Families was a way for moms to get moving with their kids.

Her son, Zachary, was 5 years old at the time, so she incorporated a triathlon camp for kids.

“I want them to have a really positive habit in their lives and it’s something that they can do for the rest of their lives,” Baker said. “Once you’re a triathlete, you’re a triathlete forever.”