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Global Feminist Profile: Joan Benoit Samuelson

October 19, 2009

Joan Benoit Samuelson crosses the finish line of the 1984 Olympic Marathon

Joan Benoit Samuelson crosses the finish line of the 1984 Olympic Marathon

Global Feminist Profiles highlights feminist leaders all over the world who are creating change and empowering their countrywomen to demand equality. GFPs run on the third Monday of each month. This month’s profile is on Joan Benoit Samuelson, the face of women’s distance running.

As an avid athlete since my middle school days, I have been blessed with having vast opportunities to participate in sports. However, before the passage of Title IX in 1972 women’s athletic endeavors were limited. Women were segregated in athletics because of the belief that strenuous activity would damage a woman’s reproductive system. Thankfully, a tiny 5’3 hundred and five pound woman from Maine challenged these notions and paved the way for millions of women to do one simple activity: run.

Due to a skiing injury at fifteen, Joan Benoit Samuelson (more known as “Joanie”) began running as part of her rehabilitation program. Due to the passage of Title IX, athletic opportunities started to increase for women and Benoit Samuelson became a star on her school’s track and field team. Due to distance running still being thought of detrimental to a woman’s reproductive system, she would hide her training.

When I first started running, I was so embarrassed I would walk when cars passed me. I would pretend I was looking at flowers…after I saw a college friend running, from that point on I decided I didn’t care what other people thought. I decided that if I believe in myself, and I’m happy doing what I’m doing, I’m going to go for it.

Joanie made history at the age of 22 when she ran the 1979 Boston Marathon, setting a course record in 2 hours, 35 minutes, and 15 seconds. Four years later, she returned to Boston, challenging the world record. Though women had been running the marathon for over 10 years (the Boston Marathon was a “male-only” sanctioned event until 1971), it was simply unfathomable for a woman to be running the distance at sub 5:30 per mile pace that. Joan’s pace was so aggressive that

She led by a minute at five miles, which she reached so quickly that race officials missed her completely. At 10 miles her time was 51:38, shattering her American record at that distance by a gaudy minute and 40 seconds. Noting her pace, an experienced male runner near Benoit had already told her, “You better watch it, lady.

Open mouth insert foot, male runner. Joanie crossed the finish line in 2:22:47, shattering the world record by almost three minutes.

Benoit Samuelson’s most ground breaking moment in women’s history is in 1984 where she emerged from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum leading the first ever women’s Olympic marathon. Joanie’s win was monumental for women’s history in numerous ways. She proved that women’s bodies were not delicate flowers but strong machines, enduring the strenuous training a marathon requires. Her   running also inspired millions of women worldwide to start pounding the pavement, ultimately launching the women’s running boom in the 1980s.

Joan Benoit Samuelson and daughter, Abby, after the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials

Joan Benoit Samuelson and daughter, Abby, after the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials

Though her fastest marathons are well behind her, Joan Benoit Samuelson is still paving the way for women in athletics today. At the age of 51, she set an age group marathon record at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Along with swimmer Dara Torres, Joan is inspiring women of an older generation to stay active, race, and most importantly challenge the notion of age being a barrier to competition. Much like the 1991 Nike ad she is featured in, there truly is no finish line.

Joanie’s Olympic gold medal was a victory for all women: to the elite female athlete to the women who would have never run without her example. She largely inspired the women’s running boom—especially in the marathon—fueled by hundreds of running programs initiated and enhanced by the impact of Title IX, and the changes it set in motion in 1972. Title IX has been with us for over 35 years. Joanie has been running for over 35 years. Neither should be taken for granted. The sport has changed dramatically because of both.

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