HARMONY — Lupus never slowed Joella Baker down.
If anything, it sped her up.
Baker, 49, of Harmony was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Lupus in 2001. Lupus causes joint pain and fatigue, two things that can certainly get in the way of an accomplished triathlete.
“I've learned to listen to my body,” Baker said. “I do the things I can control, such as maintaining fitness, moving and eating correctly.
“I couldn't let the disease prevent me from being who I am.”
Since being diagnosed, Baker has run 15 marathons, five ultra-marathons, and 18 Ironmans. She has represented Team USA at six ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships.
Baker used to run seven or eight triathlons a year. Now she's down to one or two, but not because of illness.
It's because of a lack of time.
“I'm usually organizing races and events these days rather than running in them,” Baker said.
For that reason, she has received the 2020 Jeff Jewell Spirit Award, a national honor, from the USA Triathlon organization. The award is given each year to an athlete who gives back to the sport outside of competitions and is considered a role model to other athletes, particularly youth.
Baker was nominated for that award by John Ciraula, who is forming an adaptive swimming program at the Rose E. Schneider YMCA in Cranberry Township.
“I began training for a triathlon when I turned 50 and met Joella that way,” Ciraula said. “She is supportive of so many programs and is such an inspiring person.
“She does an incredible job with her triathlon group in our community. She is extremely deserving of this.”
Baker's son, Zac, was 6 when he developed an interest in running and swimming. While getting her son involved, Baker saw a way to help other kids and their parents get started as well.
She founded the Get Fit Families program — a nonprofit organization in Harmony that enables low-income youth to participate in training camps and local races — in 2009. Get Fit Families also offers triathlon teams at different levels, a youth cross country and track program, adult running club and open water swim series.
“It's a group where families can feel comfortable,” Baker said of Get Fit Families. “Some people feel awkward working out at the Y, feeling like people are judging them.
“Families get started in the sport together. It keeps people enthused and moving, and that's important.”
Get Fit Families involves 30 adults and 65 children today. While most are from the Cranberry and Zelienople area, some come from as far as Washington (Pa.) and Slippery Rock to get involved.
Baker is also the owner and creator of the Mighty Moraine Man Triathlon Series, the largest series of its kind in Western Pennsylvania.
The series involves triathlons, adventure races, Ironman events, etc.
“It was designed to give local triathletes more opportunities to race,” Baker said. “Some of them are unable to travel far to compete and athletes always want the chance to get ranked based on performance.'
Bakler is also a USA Triathlon Level II certified race rirector, USA Triathlon Level II and Youth certified coach, USA Swimming coach, USA Track & Field coach, USA Cycling coach, assistant swim coach at North Catholic High School, certified lifeguard, waterfront safety lifeguard, YMCA instructor and yoga instructor.
Ciraula said Baker is getting involved in his adaptive swimming program, which is designed for physically disabled individuals.
“She does so much for kids and adults,” he said. “I'm inspired by her all the time. Every time I see her, she's supporting some type of program or event.
“Joella is an impressive athlete in her own right. Her dedication to the community is even more impressive.”
So is the way she's beating Lupus.
“Everyone just has to get moving,” Baker said. “There are days I wake up and know I'm not going to be physically able to meet my training regimen for that day and that's OK. I just do what I can.
“But even on days I don't feel well, I start running and I feel better. Exercise and staying fit, that's the best medicine.”