If you happen to be going to the 32nd annual Nautica Malibu Triathlon Presented by Bank America on Sept. 16, you may notice an elderly petite blonde woman — although you can’t really tell her age — stretching and limbering up among the bevy of young and middle-aged competitors getting ready to swim, bike and run on a Saturday morning.
Do not assume she is someone who has wandered into the Zuma Beach entrance, mistaking it for a community outdoor exercise class, or there to take a ceremonial bow before the competition starts.
Sue Baker is a legitimate athlete and entrant. At 73, the Canoga Park resident will compete in her age division (70-75), and will be one of the oldest — if not the oldest — women taking part in the half-mile swim, 17-mile bike ride and four-mile run.
Baker hopes she won’t be the only female competitor in her age group because she likes competing — and winning — in her age group. But Baker would not be surprised if that’s the case. “Last year, the oldest woman entered was 64,” she said.
But most important, Baker loves the feeling she gets from being involved in a challenging sport that has probably made people half her age think twice about participating in.
“I do it because I love doing it. I’m very passionate about it. I do it because I want to stay healthy,” Baker said. “If you stay active and do things, you’re gonna be healthy.”
Debbie Hefter, one of Baker’s morning swimming coaches at Pierce College, marveled at Baker’s desire to keep pursuing athletic excellence.
“She personifies the saying ‘you can do anything you put your mind to,’” Hefter said of Baker. “It’s amazing enough that she comes to morning practices and takes extra lessons to get better. But you add running, biking…such an amazing woman.
“She is modest, but she loves to come up to me and say she got a first place and signed up for three more [events]. She’s thrilled she is being recognized but she does it because she wants to prove that she can. I think people look at her and think “I should be doing this, too.’”
You can tell by her excellent muscle tone, straight carriage and clear gaze that Baker is a healthy and vibrant septuagenarian. Perhaps a former dancer, or a still practicing yoga instructor. Marathon runner and triathlon athlete would be further down the list.
Yet there are dozens of medals and and ribbons from the 12 marathons, 25 half-marathons and various triathlons — all since 2005 — adorning the walls of the home she shares with Bill, her husband of 24 years. They’re both retired now; she worked for 18 years in customer service and sales for a technical documents company in Van Nuys, and he was a former electrician who worked for television and film studios. (Bill has as daughter from a previous marriage.)
They do many things together — except marathons and triathlons. “He’s more of a homebody,” Baker said, smiling, but adds that Bill always goes to her races and cheers her on.
Baker — who grew up in the Valley, and graduated from North Hollywood High in 1963 — said she always believed in the benefits of exercise. She played softball in high school, kept up her running after graduating, and would do a gym workout before going to her Van Nuys office at 7:30 in the morning. “It was easier to go then, rather than after work,” she said.
She discovered marathons and triathlons, however, by accident. Baker was working out with a couple of friends in the gym in 2005 when one of them suggested they all try and run a half-marathon. They all agreed. But on race day, Baker was the only one who showed up. Although she hadn’t trained for the 13.1 mile race — “I didn’t know how” — Baker, then 60, still completed the distance.
And she hasn’t stopped, advancing to full marathons in 2006 (after joining Team In Training, a nonprofit organization now in its 30th year that helps supporters and cancer survivors prepare for events like 5K and 10K races, marathons and triathlons to raise money for research, cutting-edge treatments and eventual cures in support of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society), and then evolving into her first triathlon in 2012.
She still keeps up a six-day workout schedule that would give a personal trainer pause. She swims at Pierce College and runs in parks while incorporating gym workouts with hand-held weights, kickboxing, Zumba dance, spin cycling and Boot Camp classes. And that doesn’t include any specialized preparation for an event.
Monday is her day off.
“My doctor asks, ‘are you still doing your events?’ I tell him yes and he says, ‘good for you,’” Baker said. “I feel fine. I feel good. I very seldom get sick. If you stay active, you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
“For myself, when I work out, when I’m active, I just get that natural high.”
Baker also loves the response when people learn she’s not at some event just to watch. One of her favorite reactions came from running in the New York Marathon in 2016.
“My time wasn’t good because there were a million people cheering us on. And I did it with a friend,” she said. “When I got done, at Central Park, there were still some volunteers. It was dark; [the race] had started at 11 in the morning, and we got down to the park at about 6 p.m. The volunteer asked if I was okay. I said yes. And she said, “and you’re still standing?
“I was on Cloud Nine for a week.”
Baker won’t be too concerned with her finishing time at Malibu, either, unless there’s someone she’s trying to beat. The joy of competing — and still being able to compete — is a reward in itself.
She doesn’t especially consider herself unique or a quote-unquote “role model.” But if people do approach her for inspiration or advice about doing a marathon or triathlon at a seemingly advanced age, she has a simple message.
“I would say go for it. You don’t know until you try. Just go out and try. If you don’t do it one time, try it again. No one’s gonna really do it their first time. You’ve got to keep pushing yourself. But the more you do it, you get better at it.”