Joan Benoit Samuelson made history 29 years ago when she crossed the finish line at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to become the first ever Women’s Olympic marathon winner. Last Wednesday, Samuelson made an appearance on the Portland campus to talk about her role in breaking the gender barrier but also spoke personally about the importance of giving back.
Hosted by a collaboration between USM Department of History and Political Science and the SMCC Gender Equity Committee, the presentation followed Samuelson’s perseverance through the injuries and challenges she faced during her running career. A Maine native, Samuelson is best known for winning the gold medal in the first women’s marathon at the LA Olympics in 1984 and a pioneer for women’s running. Ever since, she has been an inspiration for athletes of all ages and a role model for female athletes.
“My running has told a story, and it’s the storytelling that has been able to keep me involved in the sport,” said Samuelson.
Samuelson first grabbed the public’s attention when she broke the world record and won the 1983 Boston Marathon as a college student at Bowdoin. Samuelson didn’t spend much time talking about her superstar status from winning the gold, but rather elaborated on the barriers she encountered as a female athlete. She recalled a time in high school when girls’ track and field wasn’t accepted yet as a varsity sport.
“Back then, girls could not run for more than a mile, they thought. The so called experts in the field thought, if a woman ran more than a mile it would cause bodily harm and would never be able to bear children,” said Samuelson. “So, 150,000 miles and two children later I’m still at it.”
Samuelson mentions many athletes and female figures who have inspired her to get to where she is today. She credits Roberta Gibb, an important female figure who helped open the gates for females to compete in running events. Gibb ran under the male alias “Bobbi” and was the first woman to run the entire Boston marathon in 1966. She and Samuelson still keep in touch to this day.
Besides her experience as a trailblazing athlete for women, Samuelson emphasized her commitment and dedication to being involved with local charities in Maine. When a photo of Samuelson running out of the tunnel and into the light of the LA Memorial Coliseum during her historic Olympic win popped up, Samuelson shared an intimate yet pivotal moment just before the picture was taken.
“Coming into the coliseum, I really didn’t think anyone was going to be there. Who’s going to come out and watch a bunch of women run in the first women’s Olympic marathon on a Sunday morning? I really didn’t think there would be a lot of people,” said Samuelson. Little did she know thousands of people were already on their feet ready to welcome the first winner of the women’s Olympic marathon.
“As I entered the tunnel I said, are you really mature enough and capable of coming through the tunnel and hopefully hold onto the lead in crossing that finish line first?” said Samuelson. “And that’s when, in the darkness of the tunnel, that’s when I promised myself to give back to a sport and to a state and community that has given so much to me.”
Samuelson’s commitment to giving back started with the founding of the Beach to Beacon 10k race in 1998 to benefit children’s charities in Maine. The Beach to Beacon has become a world-class annual race, attracting over 6,000 elite runners and first time competitors with more than 10,000 spectators in attendance. She’s also been involved with other charities and organizations such as the Samantha Smith Foundation, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Special Olympics, Multiple Sclerosis and the Maine Women’s Fund.
Despite her international superstardom, Samuelson has remained humble about her experience. As a retired runner today, Samuelson still runs for the joy of doing it and loves to spend as much time as she can tending to her garden. “Everytime I come home from being away, no matter what time of day or night, I always take my little headlight and go out to the garden,” said Samuelson, “It has probably saved me thousands of dollars in therapy.” Samuelson’s Olympic success and reputation has allowed her to become an experienced motivational speaker for corporations, civic groups, athletes and schools. But her story wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the people who have inspired her.
“We all have stories to tell and share, and I think we all inspire each other and I’ve been inspired by countless people,” said Samuelson, “and if I’ve inspired any people, then that’s an extra bonus because I love what I do.”