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Joan Benoit Samuelson is recognized as an all-time great runner and barrier breaker. With her courageous front-running win at the 1984 Olympics, she literally ran into the history books as she became the winner of the first Olympic marathon for women. A former world record holder in the marathon at 2:21.21, Samuelson still runs races around the world and speaks out about issues ranging from promoting physical activity for kids to encouraging companies to incorporate more environmentally sustainable business practices into the manufacturing of their products. She spoke with Grace Masback and Annika Le of W.A.N.T. from Florida, where she was doing an appearance at a major road race.
WANT: What are your enduring memories of your 1984 Olympic victory?
JBS: Actually, my most enduring memory has nothing to do with running, but has to do with the Opening Ceremonies. The team from Romania marched into the stadium – the only country from the Eastern Bloc to attend the Games – and we were really inspired that they focused on sports, not politics, which is what the Olympics are supposed to be all about.
WANT: You had a knee operation 17 days before the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1984 – did you ever doubt that you would be able to make the team?
JBS: I was definitely concerned.
“To this day I can’t explain how I recovered from a knee operation in 17 days and was able to run and win the Olympic Trials.”
In the end, it wasn’t so much about getting a spot on the Olympic team as it was getting to run in the first Olympic Trials for women in the marathon – that meant a lot to me. It was definitely the race of my life – I dug deep down, made sure that I thought a lot about all the good training I had done before the operation, and just went out there and ran.
WANT: How important was it for women to gain the right to run the marathon in the Olympics – 88 years after men first ran the Olympic marathon?
JBS: The timing was right. Title IX [a Federal law mandating equal sports and educational opportunities for girls and women] had come into force in 1972 and had created tremendous momentum for change. Nike pushed it and the IOC listened. The success of the events showed that it was the right thing to do and now other sports have also given women equal opportunities.
WANT: Have women achieved equal rights with men in sports?
JBS: I was on a “women in sports” panel yesterday with Nancy Hogshead-Maker, a two-time Olympic swimmer and gold medalist. She’s now a law professor and advocate for women in sports. She says that girls and women still don’t have equal money and resources for the practice of sport. That’s wrong on several levels. For example, it’s been proven that girls who are physically active and participate in sports have lower rates of breast cancer and osteoporosis later in life.
“Why wouldn’t society want to make sure that girls have the same opportunities as men?”
WANT: Have you watched any of the Sochi Olympic Games – what are your impressions?
JBS: Sochi has featured great venues and great competition. There was lots of negative press like there is before every Olympics, but things have generally gone well and the world’s best athletes got a chance to achieve their goals, which is what the Olympics are all about. I really enjoy the ski racing, which was one of my competitive sports as a kid. In fact, it was due to ski racing that I got into running. After I broke my leg skiing, I had to run for rehabilitation, and I found that I loved it and was good at it, so skiing still means a lot to me.
WANT: Did you participate in high school sports?
JBS: There were not a lot of organized sports for girls when I was in high school, but I managed to participate in field hockey in the Fall, basketball and skiing in the Winter, and track and tennis in the Spring and Summer.
WANT: What recommendations do you have for high school athletes for getting the most out of their experience?
JBS: You have to find your own passions – not necessarily following the passions of your parents, coaches, and mentors – they can guide you but you need an innate passion in order to fulfill your ultimate potential. Try a variety of sports and develop a variety of skills. This provides balance in life and sets you up for the future. I’m a big believer that the mind-body-spirit balance is a key to success and happiness.
WANT: How have sports changed your life?
JBS: Sports have provided me with so many opportunities in life. I still have a passion for running and skiing and I serve on the Maine Governor’s “Let’s Go” leadership committee, among many other activities.
WANT: Tell us about your advocacy around encouraging physical activity among kids and sustainable business practices.
JBS: This has become my mission in life.
“I’ve come to see that prevention is to health what conservation is to the environment, and they are inextricably linked. “
If we don’t stop it, the world will remain in a vicious cycle where a degrading environment will reduce physical activity. As awareness rises about the impact of climate change and how that affects our entire life, I am hopeful that we can keep the dual environmental and physical activity agendas front and center.
Photo source: http://www.mychicagoathlete.com/ME2/dirmod.asp?sid=&nm=News&type=news&mod=News&mid=9A02E3B96F2A415ABC72CB5F516B4C10&tier=3&nid=D9D6C499D604429B8CD85558CD43BEF3