Local Paralympian returns to Chattanooga

Liz Baker, right, a U.S. Paralympian from Signal Mountain, enjoys a moment with her Chattanooga Track Club members she mentors upon arrival at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport on Wednesday. From left are, Emily Thomson, Anna Thomson, Taylor Milliron and Baker.
photo Liz Baker, a U.S. Paralympian from Signal Mountain, embraces her father-in-law, Dan Baker, at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport on Wednesday after returning from competition in Rio de Janerio. Baker finished fourth in the women's triathlon. Chattanooga Girls for Tri member Taylor Milliron, back right, looks on.

A medal was so close that Elizabeth "Liz" Baker said it felt like she could nearly touch it.

In the end, a bout with dizziness took her down and ended her chances of a medal during the home stretch of the inaugural Paralympic women's triathlon on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro.

But even a fourth-place finish for the 42-year-old Signal Mountain woman was a feat, considering she was battling a severe case of strep throat for 10 days leading up to the race.

Baker, who raced against other athletes with visual disabilities, was a relatively unknown competitor in the triathlon. That changed when she positioned herself to contend for a medal.

"I raced with everything that I had," she said Wednesday at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, a few minutes after stepping off her return flight. "I would never go back and say I could change what I did. It was so close that it was dangling out there in front of me. But I am proud of myself."

So is Chattanooga's triathlon community.

Members of the Chattanooga Triathlon Club and the Chattanooga Girls for Tri team that Baker helped start came to the airport to welcome her home with an enormous banner and rounds of hugs.

"It's cool, and it's impressive," said Anna Thompson, a local middle school student who is on the Girls for Tri team. "She's teaching me that maybe I can do something like that one day, too. It's just impressive. I'm really proud of her and all the obstacles she's overcome."

Baker, with guide Jillian Petersen at her side, finished the 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike ride and 5K run with a time of 1:14:34.

She said the dizziness that she dealt with may have been a byproduct of the medications she was taking to treat the congestion brought on by her strep throat.

"The minute I got off the bike and rounded the first corner, I told my guide I was dizzy," Baker said. "She half-heard me. I tried not to complain. It was hot, but I never felt hot. And my legs never felt like they were tired. My dizziness just increased with each minute I was out there running."

Baker collapsed just yards from the finish line, causing her to miss out on a medal by just 27 seconds.

Still, her mere presence in the Paralympics was a feat.

Just last year, she was told she likely would not have a chance to qualify since she had not started amassing the points needed for qualification that are gained only by competing in select events.

The wife and mother of two got a foot in the door toward gaining the necessary points for Rio with a second-place finish in her category in the USA Paratriathlon nationals in May 2015 and then placed well in several more key races.

Before long, she punched a ticket to the Games.

The week before heading to Brazil, she went to Pensacola, Fla., to train with the U.S. team and was quarantined when strep throat struck.

Even though she was fighting through sickness, Baker praised the experience in Rio, saying that she always felt safe with her family and that the water was clean.

"I feel a lot of gratitude for the opportunity to be there and be with that fantastic team," Baker said.

Baker said she would consider competing in the 2020 Paralympics if it's practical financially and if speed training continues to help her improve.

For now, she is hoping to enter next year's world championships for a shot at redemption.

"That would mean I can race against that top flight that I just raced against, and I would have a little more training under my belt," Baker said. "I don't really want that one to be my last race. I don't want to end like that."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at [email protected] or 423-757-6249.