Athlete Profile: Joan Benoit Samuelson

Looking for some motivation for your next big race? What better way to get inspired than with the story of marathon legend Joan Benoit Samuelson. Winner of the 1984 Summer Olympic Women's Marathon, Joan's story of professional running success will have you determined on going above and beyond your goals.

After breaking a leg skiing as a teenager, Benoit began running to get back into shape and discovered that she liked it. While a senior at Bowdoin College in Maine, she entered the 1979 Boston Marathon as a virtual unknown and set an American women’s record of 2:35:15. Benoit underwent surgery on both Achilles tendons in 1981 but returned to top form in 1983, when she again won the Boston Marathon, setting a world record of 2:22:43.


She also set American records that year in the 10-kilometer, half-marathon, 10-mile and 25-kilometer runs. Grete Waitz of Norway, who had won all seven marathons she’d entered and had beaten Benoit in 10 of 11 races, was favored to win the gold medal in the first Olympic women’s marathon in 1984. However, Benoit took the lead just 3 miles into the race and never gave it up. She led Waitz by nearly a minute at the 15-kilometer mark and by nearly two minutes at the 25-kilometer mark. She recalled, “As I neared the stadium, I heard the unexpected crowd rise to its feet, cheering the approaching runners. I told myself, ‘Just focus on trying to stay upright and keep one foot in front of the other.” While in the tunnel, she vowed to give back to a sport and a state that had given her so much before running into the light of the L.A. Coliseum and the electrifying welcome of the many thousands that were there to greet the inaugural winner of the Women’s Olympic Marathon.

Benoit won the Jesse Owens Award that same year and went on to win the Sullivan Award as the outstanding U. S. amateur athlete of 1985, when she set an American record of 2:21:21 in the Chicago Marathon. She also won major 12-kilometer and 7-mile races that year. 

Joan is now a consultant to Nike, Inc. and a clinician, conducting numerous running, health, and fitness clinics throughout the United States and the world. Samuelson is also an experienced motivational speaker, giving regular addresses to corporations, civic groups, schools, and athletes. She has authored two books, her autobiography Running Tide (Knopf, 1987), and Joan Samuelson’s Running for Women (Rodale Press, 1995).