ZELIENOPLE — Joella Baker is all about physical activity.
The 43-year-old Harmony resident has run three ultra-marathons, 23 marathons and more than 100 triathlons. She is a four-time member of the USA Triathlon team and will compete in the 2015 World Triathlon Championships in Sweden.
She ran her first marathon in Pittsburgh in 1989. Two days before Christmas, 2000, she couldn’t stand up.
While training for the Las Vegas Marathon that year, she became ill and was sick for months.
“I woke up that morning feeling terrible,” Baker said. “I tried getting out of bed, fell to the floor and couldn’t get up. It was awful.
“Months later, I was diagnosed with Lupus, an autoimmune disease. I was prescribed Predisone, a steroid, gained a bunch of weight and was not allowed to do anything for nine months.
“My weight ballooned to 175 pounds. I was miserable. I decided I couldn’t live like that anymore,” Baker added.
So she started running again, slowly but surely, as the doctors worked with her. Baker ran the 2002 Pittsburgh Marathon in four hours, 34 minutes.
“Nowhere near my best time, but probably my proudest achievement,” she said.
The weight came back off and Baker — formerly a competitive swimmer and runner at Duquesne University — returned to an elite level as an athlete.
She’s been helping others find the athlete within themselves ever since, serving as founder and president of Get Fit Families through the Cranberry YMCA. Part of that is training and coaching a youth triathlete team.
The group of 17 local kids — ranging in age from 6-13 — competed in the Youth National Championship Race earlier this month in West Chester, Ohio.
“Fifteen of our kids competed and we were among the top three teams there,” Baker said. “There were 75 teams, 550 kids, in various age groups.
“The kids have fun competing against kids their age from all over the country.”
Hannah Fetterolf, 9, of Sewickley, and Katie Kamarec, 12, of Zelienople placed second in their respective age groups.
Baker’s youth team was formed through her youth triathlon camp, now in its sixth year at Zelienople Community Park. The first year consisted of two weeks of camp with six kids showing up.
This year, the camp had 38 kids and virtually ran all summer for six hours a day.
“This is one of the fastest growing youth sports out there,” Baker said. “What’s great is that any kid can do it. It’s rewarding to see how the kids push themselves to get to a new level. I work with all ages on fitness, but my passion is with the kids.
“We’ve got eight kids in the program with various disorders. Some couldn’t function in a regular team sport, but they can do a triathlon. They can compete within themselves.”
Four of Baker’s young athletes have autism. A few others have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHT).
A regular triathlon consists of a 400-yard swim, 12 miles of bicycling and a 3.1 mile run. Youth triathlons range anywhere from a 50 to 200-yard swim, 1 to 6 miles of bicycling and up to a mile of running.
Baker said she won’t allow one of her young athletes to run anything longer than a 5K.
“We don’t put too much on their bodies. They’re still developing,” she said. “But kids are filled with energy and this channels it in a very positive way.”
The youth season begins with an indoor triathlon at the Cranberry Y in March. The outdoor season features events throughout the spring and summer, with July being the heaviest month.
And the kids rarely get tired of it.
Emma Sciullo, 11, joined the team after watching her friend, Zac Baker, Joella’s son, participate.
“It looked like fun, so I decided to try it,” she said. “I liked it a lot. My favorite part is the bike. I like learning how to get faster.”
Zac and a few other youths have finished races even after getting a flat tire on the bike.
“It’s harder, but you don’t want to drop out ... I never drop out,” he said.
Katie Kamerec is on the team with younger sister Olivia, 10, and brother Cole, 8. The trio also plays soccer.
“This helps build up endurance for soccer,” Katie said. “There are definite benefits to other sports.”
Baker coaches the Get Fit Families adult and youth triathlon teams, the St. Gregory’s school cross country team and the YMCA Dawn Crackers Running Club, a group of adults that run daily at 5:15 a.m.
“I’ve got 400 people on that e-mail list and we may get 30 out there each morning,” she said of the Dawn Crackers.
Between her working with youth and adults, her own triathlon training and going to competitions as a coach and/or athlete, Baker has little to no free time.
“This isn’t my lifestyle. This is my life,” she said, smiling. “I’m involved with it constantly and that’s OK. I believe this is my calling.
“I feel like this (triathlon training) saved my life. Physically, I was down and out. I want to show others the journey I went through and help them do the same.”