Joan Benoit Samuelson
A Born Athlete
Samuelson was born Joan Benoit on May 16, 1957, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Although women athletes were almost unheard of during Samuelson's childhood, the athletic Samuelson excelled at sports, particularly skiing, and showed herself to be a fearless competitor. After breaking her leg during a slalom race at age fifteen, she was encouraged to incorporate running as part of her rehabilitation program. Surprisingly, running quickly replaced skiing as the young Samuelson's passion, and after the passage of Title IX opened up more athletic opportunities for U.S. public school students in 1972 she became a star on her high school's newly formed girls' track team. Despite her obvious talent for running the mile, Samuelson recognized that off the track a girl runner might not be accepted by everyone in her community. As she recalled in an interview with Runner's World, on long training runs along the roads near her small town, "I'd walk when cars passed me. I'd pretend I was looking at the flowers."
The five-foot-three-inch, 105-pound Samuelson eventually got over her fear of running in public; as she told Runner's World, she was inspired by a college friend she saw running by on the road one day. "From that point on I decided I didn't care what other people
thought. I decided that if I believe in myself, and I'm happy doing what I'm doing, I'm going to go for it." With little outside coaching assistance, she began an intensive training regime, and began to build her running base from short 5K and 10K races to include the long runs that would prepare her to not only run but race the grueling 26.2-mile marathon distance. Like most marathoners, Samuelson incorporated several runs of 20 or more miles into her weekly regime, and logged as many as 200 miles a week while at the height of her training.
Samuelson's first encounter with the historic Boston Marathon came in April of 1979, as she made a two-mile cross-country sprint to the starting line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts after becoming stuck in the traditional traffic jam outside of town. Although she started in the back of the pack, by mile 19 Samuelson had gained the lead and had mastered the most challenging parts of the course; she crossed the finish line in two hours, 35 minutes, and 15 seconds to set a women's course record.
After her spectacular debut at Boston, Samuelson returned to Maine to finish out her senior year at Bowdoin College. Now somewhat of a celebrity due to her accomplishment in Boston, the shy twenty-something Samuelson found herself drawing the unwanted attention of everyone from race directors wishing to feature her in their starting lineups to manufacturers requesting her endorsement of their running-related product. Avoiding such attention, she disappeared onto the roads around her house and logged more miles training for New England races of a variety of distances and terrains. The punishing training required for Samuelson to race distance well—which included logging many miles per week and sustaining a race pace of six minutes per mile during runs of up to three or more hours—eventually took its toll, and in 1981 she was forced to have surgery on both Achilles tendons to cure her chronic heel pain. Ignoring her physician's advice to take time off from her training to recover, Samuelson showed her determination to excel at her sport: within a month of her surgery she was back on the roads running distance. In the fall of 1982 she won a New England marathon in 2:26:11, breaking the record for U.S. women by almost two minutes.
For three years beginning in 1981, Samuelson supplemented her training by working as women's long-distance coach at Boston University, taking time out in 1983 to once again compete in Boston's historic race. Unlike her previous performance in 1979, she arrived in Hopkinton in plenty of time to warm up and after the gun she took the women's lead of the Boston Marathon quickly. At five miles Samuelson was one minute ahead of her closest female competitor, Allison Roe, who was favored to win. Unfortunately, leg cramps forced Roe to drop out at mile 17, allowing Samuelson some breathing room. Slowing her pace near mile 20, she maintained her lead to clock a finishing time of 2:22:43, shattering the world's record by two minutes and 47 seconds.
Nineteen eight-four proved to be a banner year for women's distance running: it was the first year a women's marathon would be included at the Olympic Summer Games scheduled for 1984 in Los Angeles, California. Samuelson's record-breaking finishing time at Boston in April of 1983 more than qualified her for the marathon trials scheduled for May 12, 1984, in Olympia, Washington Samuelson was thrilled at the opportunity to participate in the world games. She returned to her home state of Maine to train for the trials, avoiding all but a few interviewers and spending hours running the back roads near her home. "One of the things I like best about Maine," she disclosed to Runner's World, "is that I'm no big deal up here. No one bats an eyelash. They accept me for who I am and not what I've accomplished."
To qualify for the Olympic marathon Samuelson would have to finish in the top three at the trials, no easy task considering that she would be competing against the world's fastest women. Her training went well until mid-March when her right knee became injured during a 20-mile training run. By mid-April it had become clear that the injury was one that would require surgery, and on April 25 Samuelson underwent arthroscopic surgery on her right knee. When she hobbled from the operating room that day her Olympic aspirations seemed all but futile to many in the press: after all, just 17 days remained until the trials, and Samuelson's injury had totally derailed her training program.
While many in the running world bemoaned Samuelson's likely inability to qualify for the Olympic Summer Games in the wake of such an invasive surgical procedure, they didn't factor in the runner's resolve. With less than three weeks available to regain her former strength, Samuelson focused on rebuilding her speed and endurance. Four days after surgery she was once again running, and was able to complete 17 miles by May 3. Such ambitious training proved harmful; two days after this long run Samuelson was in too much pain to run, having developed a muscle pull in her left leg due to her tendency to compensate for the instability of her right knee. Despite the pain, she was soon out on the roads again, and stood proudly among the Olympic's women's marathon trials starting line-up on race day, May 17th.
By mile two of the 1984 Olympic trials Samuelson was already fighting for the lead, and had gained the frontrunner position by mile 17. Through an outstanding effort she finished first with a time of 2:31:04, one of the most stunning athletic achievements many running enthusiasts could recall. Samuelson now found herself embarking on a new training program in preparation for her trip to the Los Angeles Olympics. She trained throughout the Maine summer, conditioning herself to run efficiently during the hottest part of the day in preparation for an August 5th race. Her most formidable challenge was going up against Norwegian runner Grete Waitz, who had never lost a competitive marathon.
When the starting gun of the Olympic Summer Games women's marathon went off on August 5, 1984, Samuelson set out to win the gold. Taking a fast pace, she had wrestled the front spot from the rest of the pack by mile three. Keeping ahead of Waitz, the Maine runner kept an easy lead while the rest of the pack, including Waitz, drafted behind her waiting for Samuelson's injury to her knee to cause her to crumple to the ground. However, Samuelson had found her groove, and with enough reserve energy to make a strong "kick" at the finish line, she broke the tape in the Olympic Coliseum in 2:24:52—the third-fastest marathon finish ever for a woman runner. Waitz crossed the finish line a minute and a half later for the silver, while Portuguese runner Rosa Mota followed for the bronze.
The victorious Samuelson married her college sweetheart the September after returning home from Los Angeles. A year after her Olympic victory she went on to run a record-breaking America's Marathon in Chicago, clocking a record time of 2:21:21 and defeating top runners Mota and Ingrid Kristiansen. In 1987 she returned to Boston, losing first place to Mota but logging an incredible time for a woman three months' pregnant with her first child. Samuelson's continued appearance on the starting line at the Boston Marathon, as well as her ability to qualify for the Olympic trials in both 1996 and 2000—at age forty, now a master's runner—maintained her high profile and her status as a legend and a role model among women runners of all ages. Her qualifying time at the 1996 Olympic trials—2:36:54—put her in 13th place, itself an indication of how strong the field of women runners had become in the decade since Samuelson first ran in Boston. Despite the many setbacks that dogged her athletic career—ankle and knee surgery in the 1980s, two pregnancies, and then a diagnosis of asthma in 1991—Samuelson
has continued to exemplify the qualities that make a true athlete: perseverence and determination. "I see myself as having a responsibility to lead as strong a life as I possibly can," she told Runner's World. "In my life as a role model, I try to lead as good and clean a life as I can, so that children out there can aspire to do the things I've been able to do."
Although never comfortable as a media celebrity, Samuelson used her high profile as an Olympic gold-medalist and world-class distance runner to benefit several charities, including the Special Olympics, Multiple Sclerosis, and the Big Sisters of Boston. Married to fellow Bowdoin graduate Scott Samuelson in 1984, she decided to race more selectively after deciding to start a family. "If I'm not ready, I won't run," she told a contributor to the New York Times. Her running career since the late 1980s has indeed been redefined by motherhood. As she told Runner's World interviewer Amby Burfoot, "Motherhood is the hardest marathon but also the most rewarding marathon I have ever run. It never stops, whereas 26 miles has a beginning and an end."
As she has for most of her career, Samuelson often runs solo, particularly during long runs, and continues to log an average of more than 100 miles per week around Freeport, Maine, including distance training runs of 15 and 20 miles at a time. In addition to being a devoted mother, her hobbies include lobstering, skiing, stamp collecting, knitting, sewing, and canning preserves.