(1957- ) Olympic gold medalist, and marathon runner, was born on May 16, 1957 in Cape Elizabeth. She started running track at Cape Elizabeth High School before entering Bowdoin College where she excelled in a variety of athletics before she started long-distance running as physical therapy for a broken leg she suffered while skiing. She graduated from Bowdoin in 1979.
In that year she entered the Boston Marathon (26.2 miles) as a relative unknown and won the race with a time of 2:35:15, a full eight minutes faster than the woman’s record at the time. She repeated her record run in 1983 and improved the world record by two more minutes. It had been set just one day earlier in the London Marathon by rival (and friend) long distance runner Norwegian Grete Waitz. The time that Benoit recorded was faster than any of the previous four Boston Marathon final times.
When the women’s marathon was added for the first time to the Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles in 1984, Maine citizens were ready for a win. Joan did not disappoint and won the gold medal with a time of 2:24.52. She finished more than one minute ahead of three future legends in the long distance running field: Grete Waitz, Rosa Mota. and Ingrid Kristiansen.
Her father, Andre Benoit, followed the race and was at the finish line. Because he wanted to be visible to his daughter as well as everyone back home in Maine, he wore one of Joan’s favorite tops, a brightly colored floral pattern. The television crews repeatedly featured this unique image of a big French man in a bright lacy shirt to the delight of Mainers.
In 1985 Joan won the Chicago Marathon with a time of 2:21:21 , a record that would last for 18 years until it was broken by Deena Kastor in London in 2003.
Benoit continues to promote running as a sport. She founded the Beach to Beacon race in Cape Elizabeth in 1996. More than 5,000 runners now compete in the 10 kilometer race which starts at Crescent Beach State Park and ends at Fort Williams Park and Portland Head Light. She won the race herself as recently as in 2003. She has been a consultant for Nike since 1978 and published two books on running: Running for Women in 1995 and Running Tide in 1987.
She is active in the community. She has been the Nordic coach for Freeport Middle School and has conducted running and health and fitness clinics nationally and internationally. Bowdoin College selected her as a member of its Board of Trustees in 1995.
Joan Benoit was awarded the Jesse Owens Award in 1984 and the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States in 1985. She has been inducted into: the International Women’s Sports Foundation Hall of Fame, the National Distance Running Hall of Fame, Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of America National Hall of Fame, and the Maine Sports Hall of Fame. In 2005 she was one of the recipients of the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award.
Samuelson lives in Freeport with her husband Scott and children, Abby and Anders. When she turned fifty in 2007, she decided to participate in the marathon trials in Boston for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, saying that although she holds no hope of winning one of the three spots, she wants “to break 2:50 at 50.”
“Bowdoin, Nike Honor Joan Benoit Samuelson with Rededication of Magee Track.” Cool Running News. http://www.coolrunning.com/engine/3/3_2/bowdoin-nike-honor-joan-b.shtml (accessed in 2008 and on March 12,2012)
NCAA. “NCAA Announces 2005 Silver Anniversary Award Recipients.” November 18, 2004. (Accessed March 12, 2012)
Samuelson, Joan Benoit. Joan Samuelson’s Running for Women. Emmaus, Pa. Rodale Press, 1995.
Samuelson, Joan Benoit. Running Tide. New York. Knopf. 1987.
“A Wicked Good Life. Runner’s World, January 2008.
Contributed by Paul Hanley, Phippsburg, Maine, 2008.