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She’s known simply as Joanie. That’s what happens when you’re a legend. You only need a first name.
The Boston Athletic Association announced on Friday that Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the 1984 gold medal in the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon, is running the 2019 Boston Marathon, marking the 40th anniversary of her first victory at the historic race.
“My goal is to run within 40 minutes of my time 40 years ago, which would be sub-3:15:35,” she said, in a written statement. “I might as well celebrate during an anniversary year, while I’m still able!”
In 1979, Benoit Samuelson, a Maine native, was just a 21-year-old senior in college. She crossed the finish line on Boylston Street in 2:35:15 wearing a Bowdoin singlet—and ever the gritty New Englander, a Boston Red Sox hat.
Back then she didn’t have a clear concept of the magnitude of the win—or any inclination she’d go on to win it again in 1983 in 2:22:43 (then a world record). Though she had an appreciation for the prestige of the race, she hadn’t even studied the course.
“I got to the top of the Heartbreak Hills and I just passed the pre-race favorite, Patti Catalano, and I looked at the runner next to me and I said, ‘So where are these so-called Heartbreak Hills?’” Benoit Samuelson said, during a 2013 interview with WMUR. “He looked at me like I was crazy or something and said, ‘You just passed those hills.’”
During Women’s History Month, the announcement on Friday stirs something special while reflecting not only Benoit Samuelson’s success, but also her dedication to uplifting the sport for all women through every phase of her career. Here are just three reasons why we send our gratitude to Joanie—and why we’ll be cheering her on once again on April 15 in Boston.
She’s a barrier breaker.
When Title IX was passed in 1972, Samuelson was a sophomore in high school. Although opportunities started opening up for girls and women in sport, equality in running wasn’t realized until much later. She came of age in the era when the distances women were allowed to compete in were restricted, when it was thought that female runners would do lasting bodily damage—specifically to their reproductive system—if they raced longer than a mile.
Twelve years later, when Benoit Samuelson ran through the tunnel into the Los Angeles Olympic Stadium to claim the first gold medal in the marathon for women, it was an empowering image for women around everywhere—and a message that strength and endurance were not exclusive to men. She showed the world that when granted equal opportunities, women defeat all perceived limitations. It helped to trigger a new kind of running boom—one in which women of all abilities realized they, too, could run farther than ever before.
And to further prove the point, Benoit Samuelson went on to train right through her two pregnancies—even logging six miles the day her son was born in 1990.
She compels us to keep going.
Benoit Samuelson is the only woman to break three hours in the marathon in five decades:
1. 1979 Boston Marathon: 2:35:16
2. 1985 Chicago Marathon: 2:21:21
3. 1991 Boston Marathon: 2:26:54
4. 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials: 2:39:59
5. 2010 Chicago Marathon: 2:47:50
She won the 50–59 age group division in Boston in 2011, 2013, and 2014, setting a Veteran’s Division record in 2013 in 2:50:29.
Although she fell short of a well-publicized goal to become the first woman in her 60s to break three hours at the 2017 Chicago Marathon (she withdrew with an injury), she keeps going, inspiring all of us to find new milestones to shoot for no matter our age or circumstances.
She came back to Chicago in 2018, this time hoping to set a 60–64 age-group record faster than 3:01:30, but ended up running 3:12:13. Nonetheless, she was overcome with emotion when she saw her daughter, Abby Samuelson, at the finish line—the first time she had arrived there before her mother.
“To have my daughter screaming at me as I was passing her the chute…to finish with her, it was really special,” she said, in a teary post-race interview. “We’ll be back, because we both want to go under three [hours] together.”
She roots for the generations following in her footsteps.
At the 2018 Boston Marathon, as Desiree Linden made history of her own, becoming the first American woman in 33 years to win the race, it was Benoit Samuelson who was there in the torrential rain, with the first congratulatory hug.
Linden revealed later to Bonnie Ford at ESPN that Benoit Samuelson apologize for stepping in so quickly.
“I was like, ‘Joanie, if there’s anybody in the world that gets the first hug, it’s 100 percent you,’” Linden said.
If not for Joanie, certainly there’d be no Des, or Shalane, or Deena, or Jordan, or Molly, or Amy, or Kara, or…you get the point. But it’s not only the fastest among us that Benoit Samuelson has championed—it’s the thousands of women behind them, who she’s also encouraged to participate, crisscrossing the country speaking about goal setting, self-improvement, and how running can increase quality of life.
“Everybody has a story,” she’s said on many occasions, “and the stories that come with running are what inspire me.”
We’re looking forward to seeing Benoit Samuelson spin her next tale on April 15 in Boston.