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Q&A With Joan Benoit Samuelson, 30 Years After Gold

The legendary runner answered questions before a Nike event in her honor.

The legendary runner answered questions before a Nike event in her honor.

Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first women’s Olympic marathon on Aug. 5, 1984. Her sponsor, Nike, hosted a 3-mile run Tuesday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in honor of the 30th anniversary. Before the run, Joan talked with Alyssa Roenigk of ESPN in front of the 100 runners that showed up for the event. Here is an edited version of their conversation:

ALYSSA: Coming out onto the stage 30 years after that incredible day, Joan Benoit Samuelson.

JOAN: Thank you all very much. It is a nice sort of subdued, but really passionate, crowd. It is intimate. This is really neat. It was not so intimate 30 years ago.

ALYSSA: Being back here and thinking about the fact that it was 30 years ago, what did you think when you walked in here for the first time today?

JOAN: Um, where did the track go?

ALYSSA: It has been sodded.

ALYSSA: Can you believe that it has been 30 years?

JOAN: No, it doesn’t seem like 30 years. Just this morning I was running along part of the marathon route. I ran on Ocean Avenue for a while and I felt surprisingly good. My involvement in the sport now is to tell the stories of the past and primarily to motivate myself and keep myself going, but from what I understand a few other people gain something from my stories as well. If you love what you do it is easy, I love to run and I love to be with people who share similar interests.

PHOTOS: Joan Benoit Samuelson Career Highlights

ALYSSA: You have seen the sport change so much for women over the years and when you talk about those early marathons in ’79, ’83, leading up to the Olympics as the IOC and the USOC was working to get the women’s marathon added to the Olympics, can you talk about what the scene was like for women? Maybe tell some stories of some of the more outlandish warnings you received about the damage you were doing to your fragile female body.

JOAN: Well I grew up with three brothers so it was survival of the fittest; I was always running either to them or away from them. I was brought up on skis as soon as I was able to walk or run my parents would take us skiing. I broke my leg and I started to run as a form of rehab and I found out I could do it anywhere and anytime, didn’t have to wait for snow; I didn’t have to leave a carbon footprint behind and I could just go out and run. I just loved to run and I challenged myself with longer and longer distances every time I went out to run. My mother was on the school board so I would even sneak out of study halls to run and all the teachers and police officers turned a blind eye to what I was doing because it was something positive. I would go out there and wonder if I could just run farther.

Back when I was in high school, girls didn’t have a cross-country team and they had a track club that turned into a track team once Title IX legislation came into being. That is what really opened the floodgates—had I come around earlier I would have probably chosen soccer. I was in the right place at the right time for the evolution of women’s running and being here in L.A. during the first women’s Olympic marathon. When I had the knee injuries before the trials, it was knowing that I could take part in the first marathon if I put my all into training that was really the carrot that dangled in front of me—knowing that it could be an American first. I didn’t think I was going to be the first woman to win the gold, it just happened that way, because I think I wanted it more than anyone else. I love to train and the harder I train the happier I get and the hungrier I become.

ALYSSA: You had the knee injury and surgery 17 days before the Olympic Trials. How did you make that decision and what were the two weeks like leading up to the trials?

JOAN:  Well I had no choice, really. I couldn’t bend my knee, and I couldn’t run. I told the surgeon if this was serious and you need to do major surgery to reconstruct the knee, then do it because I don’t want to waste any more time. So, I went under not knowing if I would be running in a week or a month or a year, and it all worked out because I was able to run a few days later. I had the goal of getting to the starting line in the trials and then hopefully making it to the Olympics. When I came to the trials and qualified to the team, I thought that would have sent a message out to my global competitors that I wanted to be in L.A. for a reason. They didn’t really pick up on that though.

ALYSSA: Okay so let’s talk about that marathon. Although you were the world record holder at the time, you were not considered the favorite. Three miles into the race, you take the lead. Take us through that race. Did you plan on going out that early?

JOAN: All the commentators thought I made an error and a stupid mistake and they didn’t think I knew what I was doing. First of all on the Santa Monica City Track, I was the last athlete in the parade of athletes because I was on the U.S. team. We marched in the last position, as the host nation. I was at the very end of the US delegation because I am assuming the order was arranged by height. So I just stood last all the way through. The gun went off and we were in a pack and I wasn’t running very efficiently. I was taking smaller steps. I was getting tripped up. There was the first water station and I said, “Forget this, I am going to find my own space and run my own race.” That is what I did.

The hardest part of the marathon was staring Bill Rodgers in the face the whole time because he was on course doing the commentary so he was on a motorcycle in front of me. I wanted to have a conversation, but they would have thought that he was coaching me and that’s illegal. So I couldn’t talk. I wanted him to say how far behind me they were.

You know, there are two things. I look forward to the day of hopefully telling my grandchildren, not that I won the marathon, but I ran down the L.A. freeway. I have never, ever looked back in a race nor have I ever dropped out of a race. I hope that day never comes and I hope I know enough not to start a race that I cannot finish. I went into the 2008 trials in Boston, which I thought was going to be my last competitive marathon, wondering if I could actually finish the race. I had a really bad calf strain at the time, but I took a chance and I really didn’t want to drop out of the race because it was going to tell a story. I started my career in Boston, I had just turned 50, so I set a goal of trying to run sub-2:50 at 50 and end my career at Boston. But, that sort of went away and there were other stories to tell and still trying to tell more. I will keep running until I know it is not right. I have sort of been thinking that I ran a 2:52 this spring, a few weeks shy of being 57, so I hope that counts! At 60 I want to try and sneak under 3-hours and then I promise you I will try and walk away.

ALYSSA: How many people believe her?

JOAN: It is all about the story.

ALYSSA: Most of us are not chasing world records, but we certainly get up every morning and we are running and we are chasing our personal best. For you, how do you find meaning and motivation in setting those personal goals and do you have any advice from the hundreds of thousands of miles you have run?

JOAN: Well, be creative and try to write a story and tell the story with your running. You all have stories and you all have goals that you set for yourself. Just be creative and innovative and love what you do. If you have passion for what you are doing, then it is easy. If you’re doing something because someone is expecting it or telling you to do it, then maybe it’s not as easy. I think you’re all here because you share the same passion for this sport of ours, which is accessible to everybody.

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