30 Years On: The First Women’s U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon

The front page of the Olympian newspaper tells the story of the first women's U.S. Olympic Trials on May 12, 1984.

The 1984 women’s U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon helped changed running forever.

What do you remember most about the early 1980s—maybe the dawn of MTV, NASA’s first space shuttle flights, the stress of the Cold War and Michael Jordan lighting the NBA on fire. As for women, it was the dawn of a decade of power and change, with Geraldine Ferraro on the Democratic ticket for vice president, Diane von Fürstenberg’s wrap dresses, leg warmers and leotards at aerobics, shoulder-pad style and the implementation of Title IX a decade in the rear view.

But even though Title IX had passed in 1972, all was not equal. At the dawn of the ‘80s, women were largely underrepresented in international competition. Through the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, the longest running event on the track for women was the 1500-meter run. In 1981, in a controversial vote, it was decided that the 3,000-meter run and the marathon would both be included in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

The first Olympic marathon would be huge, but initially more monumental than that among domestic runners was the first women’s U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon held 30 years ago this week—May 12 to be exact— in Olympia, Wash. On one level, it signaled an opportunity—finally—to do anything men could do, and on another level, it was a showcase of American running talent.

There were 267 qualifiers (who reached the 2:51:16 qualifying time), 238 starters and 197 finishers. The race set numerous records at the time—including 31 sub-2:40 finishers—but more importantly, it sparked the women’s running boom of the 1980s that has yet to slow down.

In 1980, women made up less than 10 percent of U.S. marathoners. As of 2013, women represent 43 percent of marathon finishers in the U.S., according to Running USA. In some ways, the dawn of the women’s running explosion of the decades that followed was the starting line of the Olympic Trials race in Olympia.

Two-time Boston Marathon winner Joan Benoit (Samuelson) from Maine ran the “the race of my life” just 17 days after arthroscopic knee surgery to win the historic race in 2:31:04. Oregon’s Julie Brown was second (2:31:41) and Ohio’s Julie Isphording claimed third (2:32:26) to form the first women’s Olympic marathon team in U.S. history.

“Knowing the Olympics were going to be hosted on U.S. soil in Los Angeles gave me a desire to make the team,” Samuelson recalls. “I wanted to give the Trials my best shot.”

The road to the Olympics

In 1967, when Kathrine Switzer became the first official female to enter and finish the Boston Marathon (Roberta Gibb ran it as a bandit in 1966), the general consensus was that women weren’t physically able to stand the rigors of running long distances. Even though it wasn’t her intent, Switzer’s finish pushed the concept of women’s long distance running into the spot light, eventually calling years of conventional wisdom (running is bad for reproductive health, causes infertility), tradition and misguided assumptions (women will lose their femininity) into question.

“I realized it was up to women like me to change perceptions,” Switzer says. “Women needed the opportunity to run.”

Switzer established a career in writing, broadcasting and sports marketing, eventually becoming director of sports and public relations for Avon Products, Inc. Avon had the foresight and budget to support Switzer in creating the Avon International Racing Circuit, a series of women’s only races with events in 25 countries on five continents in its heyday during the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Racing on an international stage provided competitive female runners a platform to demonstrate their capabilities and gave the sport the recognition it needed to be noticed by the International Olympic Committee.

When the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics in the Soviet Union, all eyes and media cameras turned to the Avon World Championship Marathon in London, where smooth execution by Switzer and her team and tenacious grit among the racers left no doubt it was time for women to have more running opportunities in the Olympics.

In 1981, by a vote of 8-1 (Russia cast the lone opposing vote), the IOC voted to include the women’s marathon in the 1984 games.

Inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials

Lisa Rainsberger grew up running, but definitely noticed a different standard for women.

“There were women’s sports, but they weren’t the same as men’s. ‘It’s for girls’ had a negative connotation,” Rainsberger says. “I grew up having to fight for equality.”

She was a student and track athlete at the University of Michigan, when the Olympic Trials were announced.

“The marathon was the only long distance option for women and I wanted to run at the Trials,” Rainsberger recalls. “There was a groundswell of excitement around women’s running and I sensed this was history in the making.”

Her collegiate coach—a woman—said “no” to her desire because she thought Big 10 college championships were more important. Rainsberger disagreed, forfeiting her scholarship so she could join the other trail-blazing, Olympic hopefuls in Washington. She placed fourth at the trials, a dubious place to finish and one she would repeat in 1988 and 1992, but it helped her launch a successful career as a marathoner. The same goes for Jenny Spangler, who was a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Iowa at the time.

“I remember very clearly standing on the starting line and feeling extremely proud to be with these women,” says Spangler, who finished 33rd at the 1984 Trials in Olympia. “Women were finally getting to see what we could do, it was an immense feeling of satisfaction.”

Samuelson ran both cross country and track during her years at Bowdoin College (1975-1979), and also trained with the Liberty Athletic club in Boston. She ran to run and to push herself from within, not to make a political statement about women’s place in sports.

“I let my running do my talking,” Samuelson says.

30 years and a world of difference

“My daughter lives in a gender-neutral society, she doesn’t realize there ever was a difference,” Rainsberger says of her 15-year old Katie, who is a standout high school cross country runner in Colorado Springs. “And that’s the way it should be. We’re no longer men or women, we’re all runners.”

Now professional female marathoners compete for prize money and top honors just like their male counterparts. Recreational women runners can participate in any one of an estimated 850 marathons across the U.S. or stick with the girls at dozens of women’s only events nationwide. And, if you look at running events of all distances, there are more female finishers than male, 56 percent to 44 percent (as of 2013, according to Running USA).

“We had trouble getting seven girls for a cross country team in high school,” says Spangler, who went on to win the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Columbia, S.C. “I think the biggest accomplishment in women’s running over the past 30 years is the growth, in both numbers and confidence.”

Women no longer have to run in men’s cotton uniforms, and advances in shoes, equipment, technology and apparel make it easier and more comfortable for people to pick up running at any point in their lives.

“These days there seems to be a club for any type of runner,” Samuelson says. “It’s affordable, accessible and anybody can do it.”

Whether women run alone or in groups, to race or for fitness, even while pregnant or pushing children in jogging strollers, there’s no denying that women on the run has become the norm.

“Its one of those sports, where you can put on your shoes and walk out the door,” says Spangler, who runs a thriving coaching business in the Chicago area. “It’s something we can all do and fit in our day.”

Looking back to 1984

Women had been running competitive marathons in the U.S. and overseas since the early 1970s, when the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon both allowed women to compete and the U.S. had established itself as one of the leading countries with names like Miki Gorman, Patti (Lyons) Catalano, Jacqueline Hansen, Nina Kusick and Cheryl Bridges among the early pacesetters.

Olympia was the crossroads between the past and the future and Benoit (Samuelson), Brown and Isphording and a few hundred other runners rang in the next generation—and many generations to come—the second Saturday in May 1984. The Olympics later that summer were huge and Joanie’s win was huge. But the Trials race set the stage for everything.

“Running at the Trials in Olympia was a defining moment for a lot of women,” says Rainsberger, 53, who would go on to win five marathons, including the 1985 Boston Marathon. “It gave me the option to make a career out of running.”

“I can’t believe it’s been 30 years,” says Samuelson, who is still running strong at 56. “I was in the right place at the right time for both the 1984 Trials and the Olympics.”

“I knew nobody was going to understand the importance of getting the women’s marathon into the Olympics until the first woman came into the stadium in Los Angeles,” the 67-year-old Switzer recalls. “When Joan Benoit won the gold, it changed the world thinking of women’s limitations.”

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