Thirty years ago, Joanie Benoit Samuelson won the first Olympic women’s marathon. She did so in a time–2:24:52–that would have won 13 of the previous 20 men’s marathons at the Olympics. Tuesday was the anniversary of her gold-medal performance, and I had the opportunity to emcee an event hosted by Nike honoring Joanie at the LA Coliseum.
For those of you who don’t remember that race, Benoit was 27 and although she was the world record holder at the time, she was not considered to be the favorite. The other women in the field had beaten her head-to-head too many times and were considered the best in the world. When Benoit broke away from the pack at mile three, even her closest friends believed she’d blown the race. Her competitors waited for her to fall back into the pack and then planned to gobble her up. But that never happened. She never lost her lead and she never looked back. She ran into the Coliseum to complete the final 800 meters to a stadium packed full of fans who were on their feet and cheering just for her.
After the event on Tuesday, which included a conversation with Joanie and a three-mile run through the campus of USC, the security guards made the night even more special. They agreed to open the gates and allow Joanie to walk through the tunnel for the first time since she’d run through it 30 years ago. It’s dingier now, and painted the cardinal and gold of USC, but watching her walk through that tunnel was a moment I won’t soon forget.
“I can’t believe it’s been 30 years,” she said. “I went for a run this morning and felt so good, I don’t feel 30 years older.” For the record, she arrived in LA Monday night and ran 13 miles along the beach Tuesday morning. Last year, at age 57, she ran a 2:52:00 marathon.
She’s a badass. And maybe an even better story teller than runner.