Joan Benoit Samuelson is someone you really can’t say enough good things about. The humble Mainer probably hates the attention and adulation, but come on, she’s an Olympic gold medalist in the most brutal of competitions, the marathon, and now she’s synonymous with a world-class 10K road race.
You’ll be hearing Samuelson’s name a lot this week and next, since the TD Beach to Beacon, a race she founded in 1998 as a way to give back to both the sport and state, is celebrating its 20th edition Saturday, Aug. 5.
I appreciate the praise and attention Joan annually receives during the lead-up to the Beach to Beacon, but I wish we heard more about her throughout the year, since she’s an amazing woman.
We all know she’s the winner of the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon. We remember watching her in 1984 confidently stride past painted hashmarks on a deserted Los Angeles roadway and into the Coliseum, dressed in her silvery U.S.A. singlet and white ball cap. She was a sight to behold, even for me, a 10-year-old amazed that a homegrown New Englander was winning it all on the world stage.
My Uncle John, who was a marathoner back then, was so enamored of that performance that for years afterward a newspaper clipping of Joan crossing the Olympic finish line adorned his refrigerator. My uncle’s wife, Claire, was a top triathlete at the same time, finishing third in the 1984 Hawaii Ironman, and Joan’s image served as daily inspiration to both of them to go out and seize the day, crush the course and set personal records.
Joanie, as she’s affectionately called, was an inspiration then and still is now. She’s right up there with other famous Mainers, like Stephen King, George Mitchell and Margaret Chase Smith. She’s world-class in her chosen field.
Running, for those who haven’t experienced the lung-searing, joint-straining joys of one of the most simple and painful of sports, is a most difficult pursuit. You can coast on a bike, or rest on a bench in many team sports when you’re tired, but there are no breaks while running. You must learn to tolerate and tune out the pain in your legs and lungs. Samuelson, one of the greatest female marathoners of all time, learned how to do that on the roads of greater Portland.
She grew up in Cape Elizabeth and ran the course of what is now the 6-mile route of the Beach to Beacon – from Crescent Beach down Route 77 to Fort Williams – hundreds of times as she prepared for a college career at Bowdoin in Brunswick.
As a rookie unknown, she finished first among women at the 1979 Boston Marathon, which made her an instant public figure. If her career ended there, it would have been stellar. However, she went on to win many marathons, including the 1984 Olympic Trials race only 17 days after having arthroscopic knee surgery. And in recent years she has continued running and winning, including at Boston in 2011 and 2013, in her age bracket.
But what makes her great isn’t just her athletic accomplishments, but her humility and not letting fame change her humble and appreciative ways. This quote from an interview with longtime Beach to Beacon race director Dave McGillivray shows how much Samuelson thinks of Maine and Mainers:
“The first thing I promised myself if I was able to make it through the Trials and on to the Olympics was that I would give back to the sport that had given me so much, and that I would also give back to the Maine community which has always inspired me and kept me buoyant. … Something about the pride that Maine people share and their appreciation for hard and passionate work.”
As chairwoman and founder of the Beach to Beacon, Samuelson is hands-on and can be personally credited with creating a world-class race that fills its field in minutes online, and features world-class and worldwide talent. Last year, 6,300 runners from 15 countries and 43 states participated. Most importantly, Mainers have embraced the event, with racers from 265 Maine communities, 800 volunteers and thousands cheering along the roadside.
Joanie is a real Mainer and Mainers are justifiably proud of her. She is Maine’s golden girl. As such, we should try to remember her more than just once a year. It would be fitting to name running-related venues for her, especially in her hometown of Cape Elizabeth and in Freeport, where she now resides.
It’s the least we can do to show our appreciation for a woman who has given Mainers so much pride and inspiration.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.