Joan Benoit Samuelson energized women’s running by winning the first Olympic marathon for women 30 years ago this summer.
A lot has changed in the running landscape in the 30 years since Joan Benoit Samuelson made history by winning the first women’s Olympic Marathon at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
According to statistics from Running USA, an estimated 14,300 women completed a marathon in 1980 in the U.S., roughly 10 percent of all finishers. By 2013, women represented 43 percent of marathon finishers, but their number was 232,600 strong. What followed Samuelson’s win was the development of a new industry of women’s apparel, gear and shoes, the creation of numerous women’s running events and training programs, and continued efforts to make running accessible to women worldwide.
By the time she toed the line at the 1984 Olympic Games, she was already a two-time Boston Marathon winner, the world record-holder for 26.2 miles and had a job as the women’s cross country and track coach at Boston University. Although she’s expressed gratitude to the pioneers of the sport—including the many women responsible for making the women’s Olympic marathon happen—Samuelson was not involved in the struggles. And she certainly hadn’t planned to become one of the primary faces of the women’s running boom. But, as she ran through the tunnel on her way into the Olympic Stadium and on her way to a gold medal, she realized her life would be changed forever.
“I wanted to give it my best shot,” Samuelson recalls 30 years later. “I was happy to be in the right place at the right time.”
After having knee surgery just 17 days out from the inaugural women’s U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, it was questionable whether or not Samuelson would make the U.S. team, but she did—winning that historic race on May 12, 1984 in Olympia, Wash., in 2:31:04—along with the two other U.S. qualifiers, Julie Brown and Julie Isphording.
And on Aug. 5, 1984, Samuelson was one of 50 women from 28 countries who stood ready at Santa Monica College for the 8 a.m. marathon start. The first global women’s marathon championship for women had occurred the previous summer at the inaugural world championships of track & field in Helsinki (won by Norway’s Grete Waitz), but this was different because it was the Olympics and was being watched by an international audience.
Given the lack of long-distance opportunities for women at the Olympics, the marathon field was stacked with the best female runners of the day, including Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway (the world-leader in the marathon with a 2:24:26 clocking), Lorraine Moller from New Zealand, Priscilla Welch of Great Britain and Portugal’s Rosa Mota, the reigning European champion. (Women were able to compete in the 800 and 1,500 as usual in 1984, plus the 3,000 for the first time—but there wasn’t yet a 5,000 or 10,000 for women.)
Samuelson didn’t want to lead the entire day and she had also promised herself she would run her own race. Yet by mile 3, she took the lead and never looked back. She even skipped the first water stop so as not to get drawn back into the pack. Many wondered if she would be able to maintain her pace or if she would succumb to the heat. Instead she increased her lead.
“I was able to push from within,” Samuelson recalls. “I had an innate desire to succeed.”
Samuelson finished in 2:24:52 for gold. Waitz crossed the line in 2:26:18 for silver, followed closely by Mota in 2:26:57. Of the 50 women who started, 44 finished the race. Brown placed 36th, but Isphording dropped out.
Women’s running pioneer Kathrine Switzer, a long-time champion for the women’s Olympic marathon, was a commentator for ABC Sports for the women’s marathoner. She’s says it was “a dream come true” to watch the day unfold, something she knew would open a floodgate of inspiration and opportunity for women.
Although there were many women running pioneers and elite-level runners before Samuelson won gold, Joanie’s stunning effort in Los Angeles that summer set about an energy wave that hasn’t stopped 30 years later. In the wake of Joanie’s victory came athletic empowerment, advancements in women’s running apparel, Oprah running a marathon and inspired generations of women runners running for their goals and motivations.
Women now account for more than 57 percent of all race entries and outnumber men in general running participation.
“Joanie’s gold, to me, is the best moment in the history of women’s distance running,” says American Shalane Flanagan, who won the bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2008 Olympics and finished seventh at the 2014 Boston Marathon in 2:22:02, the fastest time for an American woman. “Joanie is a huge inspiration for me. I believe you have to emulate, to a degree, what successful people have done.”
And Samuelson, now 57, is still running strong and worthy of emulation. She’s set numerous age-group marathon records in recent years, including her 2:52:
Running is Samuelson’s passion, but it has also been her ticket to an extraordinary journey. As well as being an inspiration for generations of runners, she’s a motivational speaker, author, consultant to Nike and race founder, in addition to being a mother and wife. And through it all, her goal has been to give back to the sport that gave her so much.
“I’ll always be indebted to the women who came before me and who paved the road to make the marathon a reality in the Olympic Games,” she says. “Anything I can impart to young, developing athletes, I’m happy to share … but we all have to run our own races.”
She’s said that her goals are now more personal stories that races against the clock. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of her Olympic gold medal, she ran the 2009 New York City Marathon. She’s since run marathons with her son and daughter, something she never imagined would happen.
Recently, when asked what it means to be the first female Olympic marathon champion, Samuelson’s answer revealed the true magnitude of the moment.
“I’m still trying to fathom that,” she says. “It was a dream come true.”