Joan Benoit

First Woman to Win Olympic Gold Medal in the Marathon

1984 - Joan Benoit
1984 - Joan Benoit. Getty Images / Tony Duffy / Allsport

Joan Benoit Facts:

Known for: winning Boston Marathon (twice), women's marathon at 1984 Olympics
Dates: May 16, 1957 -
Sport: track and field, marathon
Country Represented: USA
Also known as: Joan Benoit Samuelson

Olympic Gold Medal: 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, women's marathon. Notable especially because:

  • it was the first time the modern Olympics games included a marathon for women
  • Benoit had knee surgery 17 days before the event
  • she beat the reigning women's world champion, Grete Waitz
  • her time was the third best ever for a woman

Boston Marathon Wins:

  • First place 1979: time 2:35:15
  • Won 1983 Boston Marathon: time 2:22:42

Joan Benoit Biography:

Joan Benoit started running when, at fifteen, she broke a leg skiing, and used running as her rehabilitation. In high school she was a successful competitive runner. She continued with track and field in college, Title IX giving her more opportunities for college sports than she might otherwise have had.

Boston Marathons

Still in college, Joan Benoit entered the Boston Marathon in 1979. She got caught in traffic on the way to the race, and ran two miles to get to the starting point before the race began. Despite that extra running, and starting at the back of the pack, she pulled ahead and won the marathon, with a time of 2:35:15. She returned to Maine to finish her last year of college, and attempted to avoid the publicity and interviews that she disliked so much.

Beginning in 1981, she coached at Boston University.

In December of 1981, Benoit had surgery on both Achilles tendons, to try to cure recurring heel pain. The following September, she won a New England marathon with a time of 2:26:11, a record for women, beating a previous record by 2 minutes.

In April of 1983, she entered the Boston Marathon again.

Grete Waitz had set a new world record for women the day before at 2:25:29. Allison Roe of New Zealand was expected to win; she had come in first among the women in the 1981 Boston Marathon. The day provided excellent weather for running. Roe dropped out because of leg cramps, and Joan Benoit beat Waitz' record by more than 2 minutes, at 2:22:42. This was good enough to qualify her for the Olympics. Still shy, she was gradually getting used to the inevitability of publicity.

A challenge was raised to Benoit's marathon record: it was claimed that she had an unfair advantage from "pacing," because men's marathon runner Kevin Ryan ran with her for 20 miles. The records committee decided to let her record stand.

Olympic Marathon

Benoit began training for the Olympics trials, which would be held on May 12, 1984. But in March, her knee gave her problems which an attempt at rest did not solve. She tried an anti-inflammation drug, but that also did not resolve the knee problems.

Finally, on April 25, she had arthroscopic surgery on her right knee. Four days after surgery, she began running, and on May 3, ran for 17 miles. She had more problems with her right knee and, from compensating for that knee, her left hamstring, but she ran in the Olympic trials anyway.

By mile 17, Benoit was in the lead, and though her legs continued to be tight and painful for the last miles, she came in first at 2:31:04, and so -- despite being just weeks out of surgery -- qualified for the Olympics.

She trained over the summer, usually in the heat of the day anticipating a hot run in Los Angeles. Grete Waitz was the expected winner, and Benoit aimed to beat her.

The first women's marathon at a modern Olympics was held August 5, 1984. Benoit sped up early, and no one else could overtake her. She finished at 2:24:52, the third best time for a women's marathon and the best in any all-women marathon. Waitz won the silver medal, and Rosa Mota of Portugal won the bronze.

After the Olympics

In September she married Scott Samuelson, her college sweetheart. She continued to try to avoid publicity.

She ran the America's Marathon in Chicago in 1985, with a time of 2:21:21.

In 1987, she ran the Boston Marathon again -- this time she was three months pregnant with her first child. Mota took first.

Benoit didn't participate in the 1988 Olympics, focusing instead on parenting her new infant. She did run the 1989 Boston Marathon, coming in 9th among the women. In 1991, she again ran the Boston Marathon, coming in 4th among the women.

In 1991, Benoit was diagnosed with asthma, and back problems kept her from the 1992 Olympics. She was by then the mother of a second child

In 1994, Benoit won the Chicago Marathon in 2:37:09, qualifying for the Olympic trials. She placed 13th in the trials for the 1996 Olympics, with a time of 2:36:54.

In the trials for the 2000 Olympics, Benoit placed ninth, at 2:39:59.

Joan Benoit has raised money for the Special Olympics, Bsoton's Big Sisters program and for multiple sclerosis. She has also been one of the runners' voices on the Nike+ running system.

More Awards:

  • Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year 1984
  • Amateur Sportswoman of the Year 1984 (shared award), from the Women's Sports Federation
  • Sullivan Award, 1986, from the Amateur Athletic Union, for best amateur athlete

Education:

  • public high school, Maine
  • Bowdoin College, Maine: graduated 1979
  • graduate school: North Carolina State University

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Nancy Benoit
  • Father: Andre Benoit

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Scott Samuelson (married September 29, 1984)
  • children: Abigail and Anders

More women's history biographies, by name:

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P/Q | R | S | T | U/V | W | X/Y/Z