Samuelson, Joan Benoit (1957—)

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Samuelson, Joan Benoit (1957—)

American runner and gold-medal winner in the first Olympic marathon for women. Name variations: Joan Benoit. Pronunciation: BAH-noit. Born Joan Benoit on May 16, 1957, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine; daughter of Nancy Benoit and Andre Benoit (a clothing retailer); Bowdoin College, B.A. in history and environmental studies, 1979; married Scott Samuelson, in 1984; children: Abigail (b. 1987); Anders (b. 1990).

Placed first in the Boston Marathon, with a time of 2:35:15 (1979); placed first and set a world record, Boston Marathon, 2:22:43 (1983); placed first, Olympic Marathon Trials, 2:31:04 (1984); won Olympic gold medal and set Olympic record for the women's marathon, 2:24:52 (1984); received Jessie Owens Award (1984); named Women's Sports Foundation Amateur Sportswoman of the Year (1984); set world and American records, Chicago Women's Marathon, 2:21:21 (1985).

In August 1984, Joan Benoit Samuelson arrived in Los Angeles to compete in the first-ever Olympic marathon for women. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had previously banned women from competing in the event, believing that the long-distance run posed a health hazard to women. The inaugural marathon began early in the morning at the track of Santa Monica City College, while the temperatures remained relatively cool and the smog had yet to reach noxious levels. As the marathon started, the runners remained in a tight group for the first three miles. Samuelson, feeling claustrophobic, broke away from the pack at the four-mile mark. As the miles rolled by, she continued to stretch out her lead. Some of the other runners believed she would fade back after such a quick start, but Samuelson maintained her advantage. At the end of 26 miles, as she emerged from the tunnel into the stadium which led to the final stretch, she could hear the crowd of 77,000 roaring and cheering her on. Weak with emotion, she lowered her head and kept running. As the last 200 meters approached, she waved her cap to the crowd and then broke the finish tape. Winning the gold medal with a time of 2:24:52, Joan Benoit Samuelson finished nearly a minute and a half ahead of her closest competitor. Her accomplishment was all the more remarkable considering the injuries and obstacles she had overcome to achieve it.

Born in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, on May 16, 1957, Joan Benoit was the third of four children, and only daughter, of Nancy Benoit , a natural athlete, and Andre Benoit, who had served as a ski trooper during World War II. There were two things the Benoits encouraged in their children from an early age—religion and skiing. The children often attended Sunday Mass in their ski clothes so they could hit the slopes as soon as the service ended. Samuelson's dream of going to the Olympics ended early, when, at age 15, she hit a slalom gate on a ski run and broke her leg. Though it eventually healed, the nerve to ski at a breakneck pace never returned.

The accident was a turning point for Samuelson. Without skiing, she began to focus on both field hockey and track at her high school. In order to rehabilitate her injured leg and prepare herself for competition, she initiated an extended running schedule. What began as an exercise in muscle building became a solitary endeavor that she loved. Her training and natural talent led her to excel as part of the track team.

Samuelson's performance on the high-school running track earned her a scholarship to North Carolina State University. There, her track team finished second overall in the National championships of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. In addition, Samuelson was named to the All-America Team. Track and field victories notwithstanding, she was unhappy at North Carolina State and transferred to Bowdoin College in New England where she continued to run and also participated in both swimming and field hockey. Even though most of the running events were too short to showcase her true talent, she was awarded "most valuable player" for track her freshman year. As a junior, she received the award again, this time in recognition of her field-hockey abilities.

During her senior year, Samuelson celebrated her first major victory as a distance runner. The Boston Marathon is one of the most prestigious distance races in the United States. Though it has been run continuously since 1897, women have been allowed to compete only since 1972. The barrier was broken by the one-two punch of Roberta Gibb (1966) and Kathy Switzer (1967), who registered as K. Switzer and outran marathon officials who tried to confiscate her race number. On a cold, drizzly April day eight years later (1979), Joan Benoit Samuelson lined up to compete in the event. Jumping out early to take the lead, she held it for just over five miles, before dropping back into the pack. At the bottom of the infamous Heartbreak Hill, Samuelson began to pick up speed. By mile 18, she was running alone. While completing the last several miles, she could hear nothing but the deafening clamor of the crowd as it urged her on. She crossed the finish line, taking first place with a time of 2:35:15, setting a new American record and shattering the old course record for women by almost seven minutes.

After winning the marathon, Samuelson was overwhelmed by the public and media attention that followed. There was an invitational dinner at the White House. Newspapers, magazines, and television reporters requested interviews; fans mobbed her. A television agent badgered her to consider a movie deal. The public pressure was so intense that she seriously considered quitting racing.

In the final analysis, Samuelson decided she loved running more than she hated the publicity and, with the hope of qualifying for the 1980 Olympics in the 1,500-meter event, accepted an offer to race and train in New Zealand. Shortly after she arrived, however, the U.S. announced its boycott of the Moscow Olympics. Samuelson returned home, became violently ill, and several days later was diagnosed as having appendicitis. After recovering from an appendectomy, she resumed her training schedule and accepted a job that utilized her running expertise.

Samuelson began work as a consultant for Nike in Exeter, New Hampshire. There, she performed stress tests for shoes and evaluated the effects of oxygen intake utilization on athletes. The job provided a flexible environment, allowing her to train and participate in races. Her first race in 1981 was the New Orleans half-marathon, which she won while setting a new American-best record with a time of 1:13:26. She went on to San Diego and set another half-marathon record of 1:11:16. She then competed in the Boston Marathon and placed third with a time of 2:30:16. This extensive racing schedule took its toll on her body. In December 1981, she was hospitalized again and underwent surgery on both feet. In addition to tendon repairs, the doctor removed bone spurs, scar tissue, and both bursa sacs which had ruptured.

The severity of the surgery altered Samuelson's view on running enormously. It was quite possible she might never race again. "Either my feet wouldn't heal properly and I'd have to stop running or they would be fine and I could do what I liked," she wrote in her autobiography. "Either way, I thought I could cope." By May 1982, it was clear her running career was far from over, and she competed in the 25-kilometer Old Kent River Bank Run. She finished with a time of 1:26:30, taking first and beating the American record by ten seconds. She took second place and achieved a personal best with a time of 32:35 in the ten kilometer L'eggs mini-marathon. For a time, she competed on the European Track circuit and, on her return to the U.S., won the New York ten kilometer race with a time of 33:17. Her greatest triumph, at that point, was undoubtedly the Nike-Oregon Track Club marathon where she finished first with a time of 2:26:11 and set another American record.

By 1983, Samuelson was running over 100 miles a week in preparation for the Boston

Gibb, Roberta (1943—)

American marathon runner. Name variations: Roberta Gibb Bingay; Bobbi Gibb. Born in 1943; graduated from Tufts University and New England School of Law; married to a Tufts University distance runner; children.

In 1984, Joan Benoit Samuelson was honored for winning the first U.S. Olympic Marathon trials. The statue that she tucked under her arm that day was sculpted by Roberta "Bobbi" Gibb, the woman who dared to run the Boston Marathon before it was open to women. Gibb had paved the way for Samuelson, whose early career as an elite runner was very much tied to the Boston race.

Roberta Gibb was born in 1943, grew up in Winchester, Massachusetts, and in 1964 witnessed her first Boston Marathon, which at the time was limited to males. Gibb was so impressed with the race that she fell in love with the idea of running. "I started to train but had no coach, no notion of how to train, no encouragement, no role models," she wrote in her brief autobiography To Boston With Love. "So I just kept running farther and farther—curious to see how far I could go and how fast." Gibb felt ready to put her training to the test in 1966, but when she applied to the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) for an official Marathon number, she was turned down on the grounds that women were incapable of covering the 26.2-mile distance. She decided to defy authority and enter the race unofficially. "My outrage turned to humor as I thought how many preconceived prejudices would crumble when I trotted right along for 26 miles," she wrote. Gibb's mother, who thought her daughter had "gone mad," drove her to the starting line in Hopkinton on the morning of the race. Clad in a black bathing suit, her brother's Bermuda shorts, and a blue hooded sweatshirt pulled up to cover her long blonde ponytail, Gibb leapt unnoticed from the bushes at the starting line, joining the 500 official male runners. Growing over-heated as she approached Wellesley, she whipped off her sweatshirt, thus changing the Boston Marathon forever.

Gibb was exhilarated by the response of the Wellesley College women who cheered her on, but after 20 miles, the combination of new shoes, dehydration (she was told water would cause cramps), and the roast beef dinner she had consumed the night before began to take a toll. But she persevered. "I was going to get to that finish line if I had to crawl," she said later. "If I'd dropped out, it probably would have set women's running back 20 years." She finished the race at 125th with an estimated time of 3:21:40, beating 290 male competitors. Still, authorities stood firm on their ban of women from the race.

The following year, Gibb ran again, joined by Kathy Switzer , a track athlete from Syracuse University who gained official entry by applying as K. Switzer. A few miles into the race, BAA race official Jock Semple jumped off the press bus and tried to remove Switzer, but her boyfriend wrestled him to the ground. Switzer went on to complete the race, coming in an hour behind Gibb, who finished in 3:27:17. In 1968, with women still denied official entry, three women ran with Gibb, who again finished first in the unofficial field. The next year, Gibb did not run, but Sara Mae Berman of Cambridge joined the women's field, winning with a time of 3:22:46. She cut her time to 3:05:07 in 1970, and won the field again in 1971. In 1972, BAA officials finally allowed women to enter the Marathon, provided they met the men's qualifying time of 3:30. Eight women met the standard that year, including Nina Kuscsik , who became the first sanctioned women's winner, with a time of 3:10:26.

Roberta Gibb, an attorney as well as a sculptor, divides her time between Delmar, California, and Rockport, Massachusetts. She returned to Boston in 1996 to run the 100th Marathon, which also marked the 30th anniversary of her breakthrough run. Interviewed at the time by Associated Press journalist Carolyn Thompson , Gibb recalled the headlines from the day after her groundbreaking race. "Hub Bride First Gal to Run Marathon" and "Blonde Wife, 23, Runs Marathon," they read. There were also pictures of her smiling at the finish line and making fudge at home "to show I really was a woman," she said.


Docherty, Bonnie. "Roberta Gibb paved the way for future generations of women," in Middlesex News. April 20, 1997.

Thompson, Carolyn. "Gibb recalls her historic run," in The Day [New London, CT]. April 6, 1996.

Switzer, Kathy (1947—)

American runner. Name variations: Kathrine Switzer; Kathy Switzer Miller.

Because of the 100-year "no women allowed" rule in the Boston Marathon, Kathy Switzer registered for the race as K. Switzer in 1967. She arrived at the starting line in a sweatsuit with hat pulled low. During the race, when an official realized she was a woman, he tried to stop her by ripping the racing number off her back. Switzer, and her running partners, fought off the official, and she finished the race. The incident, however, was captured by a photographer and the ensuing publicity tarnished the prestigious marathon. Five years later, in 1972, women were allowed to enter Boston's premiere event. Switzer had helped pave the way. The 33-year old Nina Kuscsik , mother of three, was the first winner in the women's division, with a time of 3:08:58, finishing ahead of 800 male runners. In 1974, Switzer won the New York City Marathon with a time of 3:07:29.

suggested reading:

Switzer, Kathrine. Running and Walking for Women over 40. Griffin, 1998.

Marathon. Her training paid off: she finished first with a time of 2:22.43, shaving almost three minutes off the world record. Mobbed by reporters who asked for her secret, she replied: "I run how I feel. When I don't feel good, I find a spot in the pack and hang on. Today I felt great and I went for it." The win was not without controversy, however. During the marathon, another runner who served as a reporter for a local radio station ran beside Samuelson. Some claimed that he called out split times and acted as a pacer. None of the allegations were ever proven and no rule against pacing was passed by marathon officials. Samuelson dismissed the accusations, asserting that the reporter was a nuisance who had trouble keeping pace with her.

In the early days, running was not considered feminine. While training on a country road, I was so embarrassed that when a car came along I would pretend I was picking up returnable bottles.

—Joan Benoit Samuelson

The Boston finish placed Samuelson on the list of favorites to win the 1984 first-ever Olympic women's marathon. She began training for the trials with a determined focus. By mid-March, she felt she was approaching peak condition as an athlete and competitor. On March 17, she began a 20-mile loop run which served as a gauge of her training fitness. As she approached the 17-mile mark, she felt a strange sensation in her knee as "if a spring were unraveling in the joint." By the time she reached home, her knee was stiff and throbbing with pain. Panic-stricken, she went to see the head of the Olympic team physicians. The doctor gave her anti-inflammatory drugs, prescribed rest, and injected her knee with cortisone.

For the next three weeks, Samuelson rested and ran short distances. On the morning of April 10, she took a long run with no pain in her knee. That evening, she had a track workout where she ran three separate miles under five minutes. All appeared well, but as she took her cool-down laps her knee tightened again. The next morning there was no improvement, and she had to abandon her training run and walk home.

On April 12, just one month before the marathon trials, she was given another cortisone shot, but her knee did not respond. Desperate, Samuelson consulted a knee specialist in Oregon. The news was not good. The doctor prescribed five days of complete rest followed by surgery if her knee did not improve.

On April 25, Samuelson underwent arthroscopic surgery. The doctor located and removed an inflamed, fibrous mass called a plica which prevented the joint from functioning properly and caused the pain in her knee. Remaining in the hospital overnight, Samuelson was released with instructions to return in a week. In the meantime, her only allowed exercise was swimming and slow riding on a stationary bicycle. The Olympic Marathon trials were 17 days away.

On April 29, the day before her post-operative examination, she jogged a bit without pain. Though cleared by her doctor to resume running, she was advised to slow down and take it easy. Samuelson had other plans. She began a training schedule that started early in the morning and ended near 11:00 pm. With the help of physical therapy and whirlpool baths, she continued to swim, bike, and run. A few days later, she ran for over an hour without pain. In her determination to compensate for lost time, she ran again that same day and pulled her left hamstring. The injury that had first threatened to keep her out of the Olympic trials now became secondary as she experimented with new forms of therapy to treat the hamstring. One of the newest forms of therapy was minimal electrical neuromuscular stimulation. Samuelson underwent six-to-ten hours of treatment a day until the trials began.

The Olympic Marathon trials were held in Olympia, Washington, on May 12. The course was a flat loop and any woman who had completed a certified marathon with a time under 2:51:16 was eligible to compete. Only the top three finishers, however, would win spots on the Olympic team. As she jogged to the starting line, Samuelson was not sure she could finish, let alone place in the top three. Her knee was tight and the hamstring still hurt even after days of therapy. At the 14th mile of the race, Samuelson took the lead and hung on through pain to cross the finish line first with a time of 2:31:04. She had secured herself a place on the Olympic Marathon team.

So it was that the 5'3" Joan Benoit Samuelson, along with 50 other Olympic hopefuls, lined up at the track of Santa Monica City College one hot summer day in 1984. In the starting pack was Norway's lankier Grete Waitz , who had been experiencing back spasms the day before. So few tickets were sold for this, the first running of an Olympic women's marathon, that the gates were thrown open to all. Samuelson, with the bill of her painter's cap facing backwards, began, as she said, to follow the "yellow brick road." Though fearful of "showboating," she moved into the lead and never looked back. It was the modest and unassuming Samuelson who was the first to come running onto the oval of the Los Angeles Coliseum while the crowd roared long and loud. Waitz crossed the finish line 1 minute and 26 seconds later, for a silver medal. Fifty-two years earlier, the Los Angeles Coliseum had cheered when another runner, Juan Carlos Zabala of Argentina, had entered the stadium to win the men's Olympic Marathon of 1932. If he had been running in the same race with Samuelson, Waitz, and those other 1984 pioneer women runners, he would have finished 10th. Samuelson said after the race that she did not want to sound boastful, but "it was a very easy race for me. I was surprised I wasn't challenged at all."

After her Olympic victory, Samuelson enjoyed and later endured the ensuing publicity. Within three days, she had returned quietly to her home in Maine. She hoped to revert to a normal lifestyle but the peace and quiet she longed for never materialized. Her hometown of Freeport celebrated her success with Joan Benoit Day, while Portland held a parade. Maine's Sports Hall of Fame bent its standing rule that members be retired and inducted Samuelson that same year. Aside from being Maine's sweetheart, she found out that the rest of America intended to claim her, and commercial offers from fast food chains and drink companies poured in. Samuelson chose her endorsements carefully. She maintained her contract with Nike and accepted an offer from Poland Spring, a local water company. She told an interviewer from The New York Times: "I'm a clean-living person. Nike and Poland Spring are both a natural for me. The others weren't." The marathoner ended 1984 by marrying Scott Samuelson in a church ceremony, with 500 of their friends and family members in attendance.

Samuelson hoped the next year would bring her the peace she so craved and that she could get back to her solo training runs. This was not to happen, however, for she was recognized everywhere she went. Cars would honk as she ran or walked through town. People came to her home seeking autographs or advice. Though Samuelson recognized that the public wanted to share in her victory, it tried her patience, and she again seriously considered giving up running in hopes of regaining her privacy.

During the next three years, she continued to train but stayed off the major marathon circuit and away from the public eye. Her running

was devoted not to placing first or winning prize money but to chasing a faster time. In 1987, while pregnant with her first child, she reentered the Boston Marathon. Despite having trained for the event, she was forced to drop out due to internal bleeding in one of her legs.

In October, she gave birth to her daughter Abigail and concentrated on balancing the demands of motherhood and marathon running. Two weeks later, with her daughter packed safely in a carseat by poolside, she resumed lap swimming. Within three weeks, she was running again. Four weeks later, she was running up to 50 miles and by the fifth week she was up to 80 miles.

The next few years saw her return to the marathon circuit but she was plagued by bad luck and injuries. At the New York City Marathon in 1988, she was tripped by a volunteer at a water station and finished third with a time of 2:32:40. In 1989, she finished eighth in the Boston Marathon with a time of 2:37:57. Even so, she continued to train. When her son Anders was born in 1990, Samuelson thought the next year would see her healthy and once again hitting her stride. In March 1991, she competed and placed first in a 15-kilometer race in Cincinnati. After this victory, she again looked toward the Boston Marathon. There she placed fourth with a time of 2:26:54 which delighted her. She continued to race that year but health problems plagued her. While running the New York City Marathon, she suffered an asthma attack and dehydration which contributed to a sixth-place finish.

The ensuing years saw her qualify for the 1992 Olympic Trials but at the last moment she chose not to compete. In October 1998, age 41, she just happened to be in New York, making appearances for Nike, at the time of the city's marathon. Rather than leave for Maine on the intended day, she ran and came in 12th. Samuelson, who races and trains as her health permits, runs because she loves it, and because, as she has said, her life would be incomplete without it. "Winning isn't everything, and it isn't the only thing," she said. "It is one of many things."


Averbuch, Gloria. The Woman Runner: Free to be the Complete Athlete. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Benoit, Joan, with Sally Baker. Running Tide. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Boga, Steven. Runners and Walkers: Keeping Pace With the World's Best. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1993.

Burfoot, Amby. "Cloudy Skies," in Runner's World. Vol. 27, no. 2. February 1992, pp. 40–43.

Dowd, Mike. "Samuelson Still Striding 10 Years After," in Bangor Daily News. July 1, 1994.

Finn, Robin. "A Runner in Search of Her Own Standard," in The New York Times. September 15, 1988.

Janofsky, Michael. "Injury Forces Samuelson to Drop Out of Marathon," in The New York Times. November 2, 1990.

——. "Samuelson Poised at Boston Crossroad," in The New York Times. April 14, 1991.

Litsky, Frank. "Samuelson Tests Her Resolve," in The New York Times. June 3, 1988.

Littlefield, Bill. "Marathon Mom," in Yankee. April 1994, p. 98.

Smith, Harold L. "Joan Benoit," in Great Athletes: The Twentieth Century. Vol. 2. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1992.

suggested reading:

Derderian, Tom. Boston Marathon: The History of the World's Premier Running Event. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1994.

related media:

"Joan Benoit Samuelson—10 Years After" (two-part interview with Samuelson), WVII-Television, Bangor, Maine, 1994.

Gaynol Langs , independent scholar, Redmond, Washington