Joan Benoit winning the 1984 Olympic Games marathon (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature Portland (Maine), USA

Joan Benoit Samuelson: born to run, and still running

Joan Benoit Samuelson is a soccer mom these days, more interested in her kids' games than in running marathons.

Fifteen years ago, she won the gold medal in Los Angeles in the first women's Olympic marathon. Now, at 42, she still runs every day and last fall qualified for the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials.

Samuelson says she's thrilled with the growing excitement over women's sports, especially the recent U.S. soccer victory in the World Cup and the rapid expansion of the WNBA.

``There were pioneers in sports that opened the door for me, and I would like to think in some small way, I helped open the doors for the young women ... today,'' she said.

There is little doubt of that. Samuelson showed regular people what could be accomplished with hard work, says Marjorie Snyder, associate executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation.

``Joan, as an athlete, came along at the right moment and had the right attitude about sport,'' Snyder said.

``It was certainly helpful she won. It's like the women's World Cup. If they'd finished third, I don't think there would be quite as much excitement about it.''

Samuelson's victory in the inaugural Olympic marathon, Aug. 5, 1984, silenced those who claimed women were physically incapable of running long distances, says Donna Lopiano, the foundation's executive director.

``She never slowed, she never faltered. She ran with a determination that from beginning to end never wavered,'' Lopiano said. ``It closed the book on whether women were made of the right stuff in distance running.''

If her age today might seem an obstacle to a spot in next year's Sydney Olympics, back then it was surgery on her right knee just 17 days before the trials.

Samuelson had felt a twinge in her right knee in March 1984. Cortisone shots didn't help, and a month later, she could barely hobble through 5 kilometres (3 miles). In late April, she had arthroscopic surgery, then a relatively new procedure. She won the trials with a time of 2:31:04. Three months later, she collected the gold medal.

Last fall, Samuelson - who still holds the U.S. women's marathon record of 2:21:21, set in Chicago in 1985 - was looking for another marathon, hoping to beat 2:42 to qualify for the trials in 2000.

She had a short list of cities drawn up but found herself in New York, speaking for Nike, the athletic equipment giant that sponsors her in races.

She entered the New York City Marathon that Sunday morning. She finished in 12th place, in 2:41:06.

But Samuelson insists family, not the finish line, is now her prime interest.

"With children and marriage priorities, my focus has changed,'' she says by phone from her seaside home in Freeport. ``The most important thing is to have a healthy balance with everything you do in your life."

Michelle Emery (AP) for the IAAF