REMEMBERING JOANIE, LOS ANGELES 1984

A Win for the Ages

A Win for the Ages

There is no champion like time itself.  Nothing moves as swiftly, nor as relentlessly.  It will outrun us all one day.  Yet it is hard to believe it has been thirty years since Joan Benoit won the inaugural Women’s OIympic Marathon in Los Angeles, California August 5, 1984. But calendars are rather dispassionate, not in the habit of subjective reckoning.

In the dark ages before the internet, or wide spread coverage of running, when Joan raced to a 2:22:43 win at the 1983 Boston Marathon — nearly three minutes faster than Norwegian great Grete Waitz’s world record set the day before in London at 2:25:29 — there were many who chose to believe there were other factors in play beyond the steely-eyed drive and talent of the Cape Elizabeth, Maine native.

This past week as Joanie welcomed thousands of runners to her 17th TD Beach to Beacon 10K, the hometown race she founded that traverses one of her old training loops, it is particularly timely to look back to where we stood those 30 years ago when women were about to first express their talents over the classic Olympic running distance.

On that overcast morning of August 5, 1984 I found myself walking into one of the University of Southern California’s fraternity houses as the inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon was about to begin out in Santa Monica at 8 a.m. Pacific Daylight time.  At the LA Games the shoe companies had rented out USC’s fraternity row as it lay about a mile from the L.A. Coliseum, and could house dozens of folks apiece, a much more convenient arrangement than the more far flung local hotels.

I was at the Puma house to meet my friend 1976 steeplechase Olympian Mike Roche.  The plan was to watch TV coverage of the race before heading down to the L.A. Coliseum for the conclusion.  Among the most anticipated events of those Olympics, the women’s marathon field was littered with names that today fill Halls of Fame throughout the running world: Joanie, Grete, Ingrid Kristiansen, Rosa Mota, Anne Audain, Juli Brown, etc.  As second cups of coffee were being poured and seating arrangements selected in the large living room, the conversation turned to the inevitable, “who do you think will win?”

Joanie 2:22:43 Boston 1983

Joanie 2:22:43 Boston 1983

Not surprisingly, the non-American-Pumans in attendance, stalwarts like 1964 Olympic steeplechase champion Gaston Roelants of Belgium and 1960 Olympic 1500 meter gold medalist Herb Eliot of Australia, were all in the Grete camp, refusing to believe Joan’s time from Boston `83 was legit.

“Downhill, point-to-point, and paced by Kevin Ryan” (the 2:11 Kiwi marathoner who was covering the `83 Boston women’s race for Runner’s World), went their argument.  Yeah, but you don’t know Joanie, Mike and I responded.

So when the first three miles fell at a desultory pace and no one else wanted to take control, Joanie, as was her want, lit out on her own, calling on the others to make a decision they were unwilling or unprepared to take so early in the going.  As she pulled free everyone in the Puma house crept closer to the edge of their seats, many thinking out loud, “big mistake”.  Well, Mike Roche and I thought it was a mistake, too, but not on Joanie’s part.

“Guys, she went through halfway in Boston `83 in 1:08:40.  I know it is net downhill, but she’s the ultimate front runner.  Like a big game major league baseball pitcher, if you let her find her rhythm, you’ll never see the front side of her again.”

Of course, 2:24:52 later the Puma house (and world) was made aware of the truth of that analysis.  The rest, as they say, is history.

 

Not that ours was an outrageously bold prediction.  We had run with Joan, nobody tougher, nobody more focused, nobody more relentless.  Her win at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Olympia, Washington just 17 days after arthroscopic knee surgery that May should have been fair warning of the depth of the kid’s iron resolve.  This weekend at the Beach to Beacon 10K post-race lobster bake her coach from those glory days, Bob Sevene, recalled having dinner with Joan and her then fiancée Scott Samuelson the night before the Olympic Marathon in L.A.

“She asked me, tongue only partially in cheek, what I was going to do tomorrow when our lives would change,” recalled Sev. “But that was Joanie.  For her there was only one medal that day.”

During her victory lap in front of 80,000 spectators, Joanie made a stop to greet her family.  After a big hug her mom Nancy said, “I guess you can stop this running thing now.”  For those too young to recall, that was still the mentality of a large swath of society even as late as the 1980s when athletics was still considered not a very girlish thing to do.

That night there was a big party for Joan to celebrate her historic win.  I brought that day’s ticket stub and asked her to sign it.  It remains the only autograph I’ve ever asked of an athlete, as we all knew it was a special day and a special performance.

There is no finish line:  Joanie with fellow Olympic medalist and Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi and ex-B2B 10K president Dave Weatherbie (David's dad Keith was Joanie's high school coach in Cape Elizabeth, Maine)

There is no finish line: Aug. 4, 2014 Joanie with fellow Olympic medalist and Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi and ex-B2B 10K president Dave Weatherbie (David’s dad Keith was Joanie’s high school coach in Cape Elizabeth, Maine)

So thanks for the memories, Joan, and congratulations for all you have done with the podium you so richly earned August 5, 1984.  But more than that thanks, too, for all the lives you inspired then, and continue to inspire today.  Because of you, Grete, Rosa Mota (the other medalists) and the rest of that inaugural women’s Olympic field nobody is asking whether young girls are ready to give up their passion for running anymore.

END

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12 thoughts on “REMEMBERING JOANIE, LOS ANGELES 1984

  1. Hard to believe it’s been 3 decades. And of course the men’s race may have been the deepest Olympic marathon ever. I used to watch a VHS tape of that often for motivation.

  2. What a great memory to relive. I remember Joanie out there, all alone, hammering the concrete freeways. It still gives me goose bumps, all these years later.

  3. Last summer on a rainy day in Falmouth, MA, , I was riding my bike and came upon Joanie’s familiar gait on the bike path. I slowed and road beside her for a few miles and we reminisced and talked about our kids etc. After a bit I asked how far she was going today. Joanie looked at her watch and said, “well I was thinking 10 or 12, but now that we’ve been chatting it looks like it will be more like 16”. Still crazy after all these years. Still going strong. Amazing.Great memories.

  4. Among the many things I loved about Joanie’s win that day was her training beforehand. While everyone else ran off to Arizona or other places to train in the heat and get acclimated, Joanie stayed in Maine where she was the most comfortable and where she knew she would do her best training. For Joanie, then as now, there’s no place like home.

  5. Thank you so much for a wonderful write up. As a woman in my 50s who didn’t start running until my 40s, Joanie is the female runner I find most inspiring. We’ve been in the same age group a couple of times at Boston… I’ll never get to her speed, but her example makes me keep doing the best that I can. Thank you Joanie!!!

  6. I still come across ordinary people here in Maine who vividly remember watching “their girl” on TV that day in 1984 with tears streaming down their faces as she did them, and all of us, proud. But Joanie has never been one to linger very long with any of her success as she’s on to the next challenge – “no finish line” is a living philosophy for her.

  7. I know Joanie from Bowdoin College and have repeated this story many times, as it represents what I think is the true essence of Joanie. A number of years ago we were at an alumni function at Bowdoin following which Joanie asked if I wanted to go for a run. Obviously intimidated with the idea of running with a gold medalist, but knowing this type invitation is one of a kind, I obliged. We ran to Joanie’s house in Freeport, and once there, I asked if I could see her gold medal. The medal was not on the mantel or in a display case, but instead in the bottom drawer of her bureau, burried under all sorts of running paraphernalia – I think every runner has such a drawer. I said to myself, if I had won a gold medal I would still be wearing it ever place I went. Not Joanie, who is the most modest and gracious athlete I have ever met.

  8. Joanie is an inspiration that for so many people is very personal. When she won the gold medal I was living in MI, had been running since ’81 and was a pretty good local/regional open runner. The day of the women’s marathon I went out for a 10-mile run with my boyfriend. It was a very hot and humid, typical August morning in MI. He needed to stop at a gas station mid-way through the run to get water, so I ran on. When I got back to his house, I turned the TV on and there was Joan, all alone running as if in a trance, no one within sight behind her. I didn’t even get a drink, just sat down on the floor in front of the TV and watched her amazing run as she finished in the stadium. When my boyfriend got home I was crying, and I was inspired. I had already been inspired to run watching Greg Meyer win the Detroit Free Press Marathon five years earlier, but now I had a woman to inspire me. Within the next four years I became one of the top-ranked female masters runners in the country. The one and only time I ran Bix I was an invited athlete. The night before the race there was a big party for the invited runners. When the party was over volunteers drove us back to the hotel. I ended up being lucky enough to be in the car that was taking Joan, who was a little late arriving. The volunteer told me and the other runner (don’t remember now who it was) that we were waiting for someone else. After about five minutes Joan appeared, opened up the right front passenger seat door, slid in and sat down, turned around and stuck out her hand to me and said: “Hi, I’m Joan.” I could have died at that moment and my life would have been complete. She’s a treasure.

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