In the 1980s and 1990s, Philomena Baker’s personal history as a citizen of Russia, Germany and the United States resurfaced when she gained international recognition as a racewalker. A sport with Olympic status in Europe, racewalking was yet to become popular in the United States.
So when Baker and her then husband and coach Moshe Myerowitz of Bangor, Maine, entered international competition in Turko, Finland, in 1991, they were dark horses. Their rivals from around the world were former Olympians.
At age 56, Baker had won the gold in her category for the 10,000-meter race at the 1990 National Masters’ Race Walking competition at Purdue University in Indiana. Her achievement caught the eye of Sports Illustrated magazine, which named her one of four “Faces in the Crowd,” the only one of the four with masters’ status. Still, the Europeans had no statistics on Baker comparable to those of other athletes from around the world.
When Baker and Myerowitz arrived in Turko in 1991, she was able to converse with Russian team members in their own language. It was the first year Russia had competed in the international races and the government was concerned about defections. Team members did not have the freedom of movement other athletes enjoyed, but were always transported from place to place as a group on a bus. During the competition in Turko, they stayed on a ship where some slept on tables.
As competitors assembled at the stadium for practice sessions, Baker chatted with the top Russian racewalker asking her about her times.
“She told me she didn’t know her exact times because only the coach was allowed to have a watch. I took off my watch and gave it to her so she could know her times. I noticed her shoes were worn out; she told me they were the only ones she had.”
Nonetheless, the Russian woman won the 10,000-meter race. Baker placed second and third place went to a German.
“All three of my nationalities were standing on that podium. I represented the United States, but each national anthem stirred something inside me.”
As the Russian winner rose to her place on the top step of the podium, Baker noticed she was wearing the watch. Little did the Russian champion know that while the world was honoring her victory, the bus carrying her team back to the ship was leaving the stadium without her.
“She was frantic. I was the only one she could talk to,” Baker recalled. “We invited her to ride on the bus carrying American and German teams to their hotel. She sat stiff, fearful. I tried to comfort her, assuring her she was not to blame for missing her bus.”
When the bus arrived, two coaches were waiting for her and whisked her back to the ship.
From the international competition in Finland, Baker and her husband traveled to Baden-Baden, Switzerland, for the European Masters’ Championships. En route through Zurich, they defied a “tourist alert” advising them to eat in their hotel and went out to dinner at an Israeli restaurant.
“Members of the German racewalking team were eating at the same place. In the stall of the women’s restroom I overheard the members of the German team talking about the next day’s race. ‘We have to do our very best to beat the Americans,’ they told each other.
“Hearing my own language, I identified with them. I told myself I had to do my best, then looked down at my uniform and realized they were talking about me. I was the American. That just intensified my determination to win that 5,000-meter race for the Americans.”
And she did. Little did her German rivals know when she stepped onto the podium that she was of German descent. And little did they know their comments about the Americans the night before might have given Philomena Baker the extra incentive to win for the USA.
And few people realized that Baker’s strength as a racewalker was a natural evolution for a person who had walked much of the way from Poland to West Germany at the age of 10.