CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — In the nearly 30 years since Mainer Joan Benoit Samuelson claimed gold in the inaugural women’s marathon at the 1984 Olympics, the hurdles she overcame to reach that goal have sometimes been forgotten.
Just 17 days before performing against her greatest competitors from around the country in ’84, Samuelson underwent knee surgery. Years before, as a young girl growing up in Cape Elizabeth, she battled fear that her passion for sports would make her an outcast.
Samuelson, a current resident of Freeport, is preparing to take part in Saturday morning’s 15th annual TD Beach to Beacon 10K road race, an event that she founded and which has grown into the Super Bowl of Maine distance races.
Before vehicle traffic was allowed there and Fort Williams Park took off in popularity, the park roadways now included in the big race were once Samuelson’s favorite running paths, specifically because nobody would see her there.
“I was sensitive about shedding a tomboy image,” she recalled Tuesday. “I grew up with three brothers and in a neighborhood full of boys. I didn’t want people to think running and sports was my life.”
Her status as a running legend — she set world record times in the women’s marathon and half marathon in the early 1980s — is now often accepted without great scrutiny. But with the London Olympics shining a light on sports like track and field, and the annual Beach to Beacon looming, Samuelson granted a series of interviews Tuesday in front of the iconic Portland Head Light.
“With the Olympics coming around every four years, people have a renewed interest in who these athletes are and what makes them the athletes that they are,” Samuelson, 55, told the Bangor Daily News Tuesday.
Who is Samuelson? Well, before she broke through as a star runner, she had to break out of her shell. The woman who would become known as the greatest distance runner in the world was first a girl who didn’t want to be known as a runner at all.
“Then one day I decided it didn’t matter what other people thought of my running,” she recalled. “I challenged myself and I ventured outside the gates of Fort Williams. I ran to Pond Cove and back. Then I ran to the center of town and back.”
She kept lengthening her distances and shortening her times. She came out of relative obscurity to win and set a new record at the Boston Marathon in 1979. Then she overcame 1981 surgery on her Achilles tendons to set a new world record in placing first in the 1983 Boston Marathon.
So by the 1984 Olympics, not only did the kids from her Cape Elizabeth neighborhood know she was a runner, but so did most everyone else in the world who followed the sport.
Yet, just 17 days before the U.S. Olympic trials that year, Samuelson underwent arthroscopic knee surgery to repair severe damage suffered during a 20-mile training run in March.
“I knew if my knee problem was taken care of by the arthroscopic surgery, I knew I could make it to to the starting line” at the Olympics, she recalled Tuesday.
The rest, as they say, is history. Samuelson claimed victory at the marathon trials and then again at the Olympic games in Los Angeles.
It could be argued that, had Samuelson not recovered so quickly from knee surgery and dominated the global field in that shining gold medal moment, the Beach to Beacon would not be here today. Maine’s biggest road race grew from a pledge she made herself down the final stretch of that 26.2-mile Olympic run.
“I remember going into the tunnel in L.A. thinking, ‘If I’m fortunate enough to hold onto this lead, I’m going to give back to the sport and the state that gave me so much,’” Samuelson said Tuesday, adding, “I thought about how beautiful the roads of Cape Elizabeth were and I thought about how easy it would be to invite the best runners in the world to come to Cape Elizabeth to run in a world class event.”