Legends Samuelson and Kastor Celebrate 40th Anniversary of Women’s Olympic Marathon
By Chris Lotsbom
In recognition of the 40th anniversary of the inaugural Women’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon, running royalty gathered to reflect on four decades of progress, memories and momentum leading into the Orlando event. Joan Benoit Samuelson, the 1984 Trials champion and Olympic gold medalist, was flanked by 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor and Betsy Hughes, co-owner of Track Shack and Track Shack Events (TSE), steps from the Florida finish line. All agreed: the sport has come a long way since Samuelson made history in 1984.
“Most competitors tomorrow weren’t born 40 years ago!” said Samuelson in jest.
At the first women’s Olympic Trials in Olympia, Washington, Samuelson toed the line 17 days after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The qualifying standard was 2:51:16, “official” women’s marathoning was in its infancy and the Maine native didn’t know that she was paving the way for thousands of competitive American women’s competitors to come. She won by 37 seconds, in 2:31:04.
Twenty years later – at the 2004 Trials in St. Louis – Kastor made her first Olympic marathon team thanks to a runner-up placing behind Colleen De Reuck. She’d go on to win the 2008 Trials in Boston, and credits Samuelson for inspiring her as an 11-year-old watching the Los Angeles Olympic Marathon in her family’s living room.
“I didn’t really understand it was the first-ever women’s Olympic Marathon, but I understood it was a big deal that the little American from Maine was going to be winning the Olympic Marathon,” said Kastor. “The vision of Joan taking off the white hat and waving it as she came into the Coliseum might have been the reason why I took up running later that year.”
While all three reminisced on four decades of racing and Trials memories, it was talking about the depth for Saturday’s race that made each beam from ear to ear. Hughes and the Track Shack team have created a loop course that is optimal for speed and spectators. A total of 173 women qualified, all having run 2:37:00 or faster (or sub-1:12 for the half marathon), a sign of the strength of women’s running in America. Thousands of fans are expected to crisscross The City Beautiful cheering on the current crop of talent, including American record-holder Emily Sisson, former record holder Keira D’Amato, 2018 Boston Marathon champion Des Linden and the rest.
“We’ve been running for 50 years, and it’s been a lifelong dream to host the Trials,” said Hughes, noting how the sport has brought together so many friends and community members around Orlando. “All our spectators are going to see these runners a minimum of three to four times.”
“Now we get to watch the new American record-holders go out there tomorrow, and it’s all very exciting,” said Samuelson, later adding “I have a lot of favorites out there, and this is going to be the Trials [to remember].”
While only five athletes competing were born prior to Benoit Samuelson’s legendary run on May 12, 1984, all will reap the benefits of her and Kastor’s legacies in the sport. No longer is it a question of if women can run marathons, as the chatter was pre-1984. Now it’s a matter of how strong Team USA will be on the global stage year in and year out.
“The three fittest people are going to make each team tomorrow,” said Kastor, who’ll serve as an analyst on the NBC telecast. “When you are fit and at your best, you can adapt to the competition, you can adapt to the weather, you can adapt to hiccups that happen during the race.”
“You’re all going to be in for a treat. It’s going to be a great race. I think we’re going to have some surprises,” Samuelson exclaimed. “Expectations will be met, but there will be surprises.”