Key Peninsula resident Jillian Petersen, 33, went to the 2016 Paralympic games as a guide in the triathlon for Elizabeth Baker, 43. Petersen just missed qualifying to compete in the 2012 Olympics herself, and raced with the International Triathlon Union (ITU) as a professional.
USA Triathlon chose Petersen to guide Baker just eight weeks before the start of the games in Rio de Janeiro in September.
“Jillian came out of nowhere,” said Baker. “She’s a professional triathlete and a personal trainer. Guides for triathlons (swimming, bicycling and running) have got to be better than you on their worst day.”
Petersen had never guided an athlete. She had been in line as third backup guide for another racer during a qualifying event in April 2015, when a faster race time earned Baker a place on the USA Paralympics team.
Petersen said she and Baker were forced together for two weeks. “In such tight quarters, you get to know each other, whether you want to or not,” Petersen said. “We get along great. She’s like my long-lost sister.”
Baker traveled from her home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to train with Petersen for a week at her home on Lake Minterwood. The following week, they raced in Pensacola, Florida. “She was vested in my race, as if it were her own,” Baker said.
Baker has Stargardt’s disease, a juvenile form of macular degeneration that has progressively diminished her central field of vision. “My sight went from 20/60 to 20/140 when I was a freshman in high school,” she said. “I can read 28 font, but I can’t find my own bike.”
“When we swim in open water, we have to follow the buoys to take the best route to the finish line; I can’t see it,” Baker said. That is where Petersen comes in. Bound by a 50- to 55- centimeter tether joining them at the wrist, the guide steers the swimmer on the most direct course, coaching, encouraging, directing, while keeping pace side-by-side with the contestant.
The cycling portion of their race in Rio was difficult for Petersen. The Matrix tandem bicycle was heavy and tired her out. “That bike hurt so bad,” she said.
Later, during the footrace, “I was killing myself, running faster than I wanted to,” Petersen said. “For the first mile of the run, I couldn’t talk. Then I got my legs under me and checked my watch. I told Liz, ‘Honey, I am sorry to do this to you. You’re going to have to pick up the pace.’”
They passed Melissa Reid and her guide, Nicole Walters (from the United Kingdom), and moved into third place. “Then I saw it happen before it happened, and there was nothing I could do about it,” Petersen said.
“All of a sudden, I felt dizzy,” Baker said. “I couldn’t see straight. I couldn’t control my legs. I lost motor control. I went down.”
Petersen was shouting, “but I couldn’t hear the words come out of my mouth because the crowd went insane.” Baker got up to run again, but Reid and her guide had passed them.
Petersen did not know what to do when Baker fell. “I reached out to help her, but didn’t want to do anything that would disqualify her.”
“Jillian never stopped talking to me on the last leg of the race,” Baker said. “Her supporting words—‘You’re a supermom, I know you have it in you, you’re a superwoman, you’ve already done an amazing job, you can do this’—were so encouraging to me. She treated me like a real athlete.”
Baker fell again before getting up and walking across the line to finish fourth. She collapsed later in the medical tent.
“It was gut-wrenching,” Petersen said. “I felt like I’d killed her. I thought I’d pushed her too much.”
Baker said she had strep throat since the race in Pensacola. In Houston for athlete processing, she did two open water swims and ended up in an emergency clinic with a head and chest cold. She was taking antibiotics and feeling better by the time she got to Rio. An American doctor gave her Sudafed in an amount permitted under mandatory drug testing, to help her breathing.
“She was sick the whole week before,” Petersen said. “For her to be able to race to that capacity is amazing. Everything Liz has done and accomplished, she treats it like it’s nothing. As a trainer, I work to find what motivates them. She motivated me,” Petersen said.
Back in Gig Harbor, Petersen is a swimming teacher at the YMCA and working as an intern at BeBetter Gym, where she plans to start a practice in January as a personal trainer.
“Liz really wants me to guide her if she competes again, looking toward the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020,” Petersen said. Baker told her, “I’m not doing it without you.”
Video of Baker’s race and collapse are on YouTube at www.youtube.com. Search for women’s Paralympic triathlon Rio.