Joan Samuelson Tackles Final Olympic Marathon Trials in Boston

Mon, 20 April 2009 - 1:17 p.m. MT
Credit: Jeff Venables

Joan Samuelson will perhaps best be remembered for her dominating performance in the inaugural Olympic women’s marathon in 1984 in Los Angeles. Joan Benoit, then 26, had qualified for the race just two and a half weeks after arthroscopic knee surgery, in the first-ever U.S. Olympic Team Trials-Women's Marathon in Olympia, Washington, which she also won.

Samuelson, now 50, has enjoyed a stellar distance running career and is an inductee to the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame and National Distance Running Hall of Fame, and in June will be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in a ceremony in Chicago.

A native of Cape Elizabeth, ME, Joan is a two-time Boston Marathon champion, running a 2:35:15 in 1979, and a 2:22:43 in 1983. She was the recipient of last year’s Patriots’ Award, which was established in 2002 and is awarded annually during the Boston Marathon weekend to a New England-based individual or organization that is “patriotic, philanthropic, inspirational, and fosters goodwill and sportsmanship in distance running.” In Boston this year, Samuelson had the honor of starting the Elite Women’s race at 9:35 a.m. on Monday, April 21. It was the 112th running of the world’s oldest annual marathon.

Samuelson’s extra popularity in Boston in 2008 stems in part from her competing in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials-Women’s Marathon, held one day earlier, on Sunday, April 20. Women’s marathoning has become the sport to watch in recent years, and its growth is due in no small part to Samuelson’s legendary achievements in it. And so at 8 a.m. on a clear spring morning in Boston, more than 150 of the nations top female distance runners set out near the Hynes Convention Center on Boylston Street to race for one of three much-coveted spots on the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team, which will go on to compete in the Olympic women’s marathon in Beijing in August. After one loop of Boston Common and the Public Garden, these sub-2:47:00 qualifiers made four 6-mile loops of the Back Bay and Cambridge riverfront, finishing at the Boston Marathon finish line on Boylston Street in front of the public library.

At 50, Samuelson was running her fourth and final Trials race. “If people can gain inspiration from what I love to do…that’s a huge bonus for me. I’m doing this because I love the sport,” she said. Her family—including her husband, Scott and two children, Abby and Anders—were out in full force, as well as a variety of friends who have shared similar moments in her 30-year running career. “My husband has been very supportive and our two kids have been great about it,” she said. “They actually inspire me with their different passions. It all goes full circle.”

The challenges ahead were nevertheless apparent: “The wind is a factor and for me the fact that it’s a flat course. I won’t have many opportunities to alter my stride, which is usually strength for me.”

The name Joan Benoit Samuelson, synonymous with the increased popularity of distance running in the U.S., is now attached as well to a remarkable personality who enjoys secondary and tertiary careers as a Nike consultant, clinician, and the author of two books. Indeed, Samuelson was there during the very early days of Nike, back when University of Oregon graduate Geoff Hollister was selling shoes out of the trunk of his car. Hollister, who was among those friends along the course at the Trials this year, recounts the early days in his new book, Out of Nowhere: The Inside Story of How Nike Marketed the Culture of Running.

Benoit met Jeff Johnson (Nike’s first employee and then a high school coach) at the Nike research and development center in Exeter, NH, and had been folded into the family by the time she had discovered her event, the marathon. Joan would eventually become an employee of the Exeter Sports Lab. She was placed on the Nike Athletes Assistance Program and then on the Nike Athletics West team. She would go on to win an American record at the Nike-OTC Marathon in 1982.

But if ever there was ever a beneficiary of Nike’s push to bring women’s competition to the Olympics above the 1500m distance, it was Joan Benoit. As late as the early 1980s, there was concern among International Olympic Committee members that women’s marathoning could somehow cause infertility. Nike was not of that archaic opinion, and eventually played a major role in convincing the IOC otherwise. As Hollister said at a recent press conference discussing his book, “And the fact that Joan’s two kids are in the audience right now is evidence that we were right.”

Soon Joan was training in Oregon, readying herself for the first-ever women’s marathon trials with Nike coaches and Nike shoes. These were the early days of athletic sponsorship, and few could have realized at the time what sweeping changes and heights of achievement would eventually result as runners made the switch from, if still remarkable, severely underfunded amateurs to professional, sponsored titans of their sport.

Perhaps most remarkably, just 17 days away from the Trials, an injured Benoit underwent arthroscopic knee surgery with Nike consultant and surgeon Stan James. As Hollister writes, “Joan Benoit symbolized what can happen when you combine Nike’s effort with an undying spirit of determination and grit.”

After a victory in Olympia—despite the controversial surgery and a need only to place third to qualify for the Olympic team—Benoit went on in 1984 to Los Angeles to compete in the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon. Geoff Hollister recalls it as if it were yesterday. The Nike staff filled the room they had rented in L.A. to watch the race finish on television. At the halfway point in Santa Monica, Joan had broken free, “a lone figure running on an L.A. freeway.” Her “piston-like legs” were now well in front of marathon legends like Grete Waitz and Rosa Mota. “We could see it on the screen, but when Joan appeared out of the tunnel and onto the track, we heard the crowd erupt from the packed coliseum blocks away…She had her place in history—the first woman marathoner to win a gold medal in the Olympics.”

Decades later, when he was asked if he had a favorite moment in sports, Nike founder Phil Knight said, “Yes, when Joan Benoit emerged from the tunnel in Los Angeles.”

Now a frequent speaker at health and fitness clinics, Samuelson is the author of Running Tide, a 1987 autobiography; and a 1995 book, Joan Samuelson’s Running for Women. She is also the founder and race director of the Beach to Beacon 10K every August in her hometown of Cape Elizabeth, a race so popular that it will this year be used as the first test of an extraordinary new technology. Partnering with a company called, Boston Marathon medical coordinator Christopher Troyanos is overseeing a new program that will require road race entrants to submit their medical history as part of the Beach to Beacon online race application process. Whether someone has diabetes, or is prone to, say, anaphylactic shock, will all be accessible in secure codes, and instantly transferable to whomever is treating that person. What’s more, once a runner is in the system, the data can be transferred to other races internationally.

Meanwhile, on Massachusetts Avenue the crowd watches with baited breath as Samuelson completes her four long loops, churning out Miles 3, 9, 15, and 21—with each pass looking perfectly relaxed and like the experienced running legend she is. Three California women will go on to take spots on the U.S. Olympic Team: Deena Kastor (35, Mammoth Lakes), Magdalena Lewy-Boulet (34, Oakland), and Blake Russell (32, Marina). But for Samuelson, the day is about looking back, while ever looking forward.

In a pre-race interview, the masters runner stated, “I just want to cross the finish line. There are a lot of people here who have been part of the sport with me for decades…So you know, I’m trying to look at it as more of a celebration and being able to run an event like this at my age.”

Samuelson went on to set a new U.S. women’s marathon 50-54 age-group record: 2:49:08. She had already set the U.S. women’s marathon record four times prior.

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