Skip to main content


Women's marathon Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder Joan Benoit, a true Mainer, has fame and fortune in perspective

Sit for a little while at the instrument panel in Joan Benoit's mind. It's Aug. 5, 1984, and you're nearing the end, the blessed end, of the first Olympic-marathon for women. One more hard left turn brings you to the mouth of the downsloping, ivy-walled tunnel into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. There, in the passageway, it's wonderfully cool and dim after two hours and 20 minutes on the hot Los Angeles roads. You'll get perhaps 80 yards of this respite from the rolling applause of the city—the crowds in the final miles have been held back by chain link fences—before you pop out into view of the roughly 77,000 people waiting in the stadium, waiting to engulf you with their adoration.

"Before going in that tunnel," recalls Benoit, "I somehow heard or sensed the crowd inside come to its feet. I thought, 'This is the dream. This is the first women's Olympic marathon. This could really change my life.' "

She knew she might be running through a passageway to more than she had bargained for. "It's still not too late," Benoit thought. "I can hide in here and not come out on the other side."

Of course she could do no such thing. A vehicle carrying a TV camera preceded her. The entire assembly was watching her progress on the Coliseum scoreboard screens. Imagine the horrified fascination of the world, and the dissection of her psyche that would have taken place, if she'd tried to duck out of this now. It was an illusion that she had any choice but to finish. But Benoit didn't want to face up to that for a bit.

First, she cast back: "I remembered marching in the opening ceremony, being stacked up behind the rest of the teams at the end of this same tunnel and wondering what my legs would feel like in the marathon if I made it this far still in the lead." Now she knew. They felt fine. She had left the field behind after three miles and now led Grete Waitz of Norway by a minute and a half. Even though she'd been running comfortably, saving something to repel a challenge—"I knew it would be a tight pack all the way. I worried about being outkicked," Benoit said later—she had it won.

The tunnel is curved. Benoit reached a point in the dirty gloom where she could see neither entrance nor exit. "In that 15 seconds, I thought of the aftermath of winning the Boston Marathon in 1979," she says. She had been an undergraduate at Bowdoin College then, a waif in a Red Sox cap finishing in the cold rain. "That was the first time there was all the attention afterward, the commercial approaches, the foundations pursuing me, all of them worthy, but so many of them...I really fell apart after that."

But she'd learned from it; she'd come to understand that the life she'd enjoyed during her childhood in Maine would always be the best for her. "I handled the 1983 world record better because of that," she says. That was her 2:22:43, again at Boston, a prodigious run, nearly three minutes better than the world record that had been shared by Allison Roe and Waitz.

Her impending victory in Los Angeles would underline the Boston record and certify Benoit as the best woman marathoner ever. That is, it would if she chose to come out of the tunnel. "I thought, 'O.K., this isn't going to be a world record, but on the other hand, it will be the Olympic gold medal,' " Benoit says. "It seemed like a trade-off; one couldn't be any worse than the other. I really didn't want to change my life, but I thought I could handle this one."

So, straight with herself, she strode out into the light and the welcoming song of the nation. "I was absolutely amazed that it was over and I had had it so easy," she says. "Even the parts that I'd dreaded, like the Marina Freeway [between miles 17 and 19], were fine. In fact, the freeway was where I felt the most at ease. I was all by myself, without even any spectators. That's the thing I'll tell the grandchildren, that I ran down an L.A. freeway all alone."

And happily so, because that's the way she trains. "Ninety-five percent, anyway," she says. "No, 98 percent."

The house of Scott Samuelson and Joan Benoit Samuelson is on a point jutting out into Casco Bay, a few miles from Freeport, Maine. The Samuelsons are dividing their time these days between a room in a friend's house, in Wellesley, Mass., where Scott is pursuing a graduate degree in business at Babson College, and this rambling Maine farmhouse they have been restoring for two years.

"At first, people said, 'It's going to be nice someday, but where are you living now?' " says Benoit. The home is about seven-eighths nice at present, with a bracing view of frozen bay stretching to a horizon of darkly timbered islands. The Samuelsons' black Labrador, Creosote, is no puppy but a distinguished family member, trying to remain nonchalant about soon being bred. The coffee table, burdened with The New Yorker magazines, binoculars and bird books, is a cobbler's bench. The only trophy visible is an original bronze of a woman runner in flight, given Joan for winning the Olympic trial marathon in late May, a scant 17 days after arthroscopic knee surgery. "The sculpture was done by Roberta Gibb, who was the first woman to run Boston," Benoit says. "But it's out because it's a real work of art."

In the kitchen, a parchment invitation—an elaborate scroll—to the Reagan inauguration is held to the refrigerator door by a magnetized Mondale/Ferraro button. Benoit herself sits with a tuna sandwich, an orange and a cup of Prince of Wales tea. Her haircut is short and practical, her smile perky and wry. One easily visualizes her putting up her famous blueberry jam. She might be a model for a catalog house catering to those who favor the country life. Not L.L. Bean, however, even if that august company's store is but five miles away in downtown Freeport. For one thing, the family business, A.H. Benoit Company, a neat, four-story apparel store in Portland, once felt itself to be in competition with Bean. Now, says Joan, the latter has been overrun by yuppies, up from New York, taking on a little rustic camouflage.

Benoit is not a young urban professional. She's a Mainer, having grown up in Cape Elizabeth, just south of Portland. At 27, she's young but has never found joy in urban settings, and though her running is both her living and her exaltation, one somehow balks at calling her a professional. Running is seldom discussed in the Samuelson household. Rather, the vital concerns are reconstruction of the barn, canning, skiing, sewing, film criticism, the quality of firewood, wallpapering, local politics and how it's wasteful to eat only the claws and tail of the lobster. (Benoit relishes tomalley, the green stuff in the body, as well.) She keeps a half-bushel box of stamps she has torn from her mail. "I haven't had the time to even steam them off the envelopes. That's what I'll do when my legs really go."

She's small (5'3" and 108 pounds), bright, wishes to deflect praise and tends to employ a kind of Socratic method of explication. "See anything unusual about these jeans?" she'll say, making you move into better light to go over them in detail until you at last see that Levi's has labeled them the exclusive property of Olympic gold medalists and that they have 22-karat gold buttons and rivets.

Or, while driving, she'll say, "That baseball diamond give you an idea of what that set of buildings is?"

"A school? A prison?"

"No, L.L. Bean's warehouses. There's no sign, because they don't want anyone to know how big they are."

Benoit was in from a late-morning run of 13 miles, which was, as usual, unaccompanied. "I feel when I'm running with someone else I have to keep up my end of the conversation," she says. "But that takes away from my concentration on my running. If people are right in saying you're running too hard if you can't carry on a conversation, then I'm running too hard 90 percent of the time."

Few can do much jabbering at Benoit's training pace. "She's testing you," Bob Sevene, her Athletics West coach, says. "If you keep up, the pace quickens again, notch after notch. Sometimes she doesn't even know she's doing it."

Before her best races, Benoit has done three months or so of 110-mile weeks, running twice a day, the hardest workouts being loops of 16 and 20 miles, and having a weekly track session. It's now seven months since her Olympic victory, but only recently has she logged a training week to match those that led up to it. The reason, in part, is that she was wrong about being able to prevent Olympic renown from altering her life. In part, it's because she rearranged it a little herself.

"Right after the race, things weren't so bad," she says. "I ran a half-marathon in Philadelphia [in which she lowered her world best to 1:08:34], there was a parade in Portland, I was honored by the Maine Sports Hall of Fame and Freeport had a day. But people were understanding. They waited to have most of that kind of thing until after the wedding."

This was a real wedding, elaborate and exciting and right. It took place on Sept. 29 and ended with Scott and Joan sailing away from the cheering party in a boat Scott had built for her as a 26th birthday present.

Joan met Scott when she was a sophomore at Bowdoin in 1977. "I was talking to someone else at a rush party," she says, "and saw this tall, blue-eyed guy across the room and stopped my talking just to look. That was that."

The 6'3" Samuelson, who from certain angles bears a resemblance to Christopher Reeve, was funny, informal, a pole vaulter—"Good enough to maybe throw my pole up to the Olympic qualifying standard," he says—and a Nordic combined skier, which of course required that he ski jump. He's alleged by Benoit to be a daredevil. "He tried to use the windsurfing sail to get him up to 40 miles an hour on cross-country skis," she says. "It didn't work."

"Not crazy," Scott says in rejoinder. "Just curious."

It took a while for this match to jell. "I went off to North Carolina State for a year and a half to train with Mary and Julie Shea," says Benoit, "and I took it upon myself to begin writing to him from there, and he answered, and when I came back, well, that was that:

After Samuelson graduated, he began working on a stake for a trip to his ancestral Sweden. "He cooked chili dogs on Keystone Mountain," says Benoit in mock impatience, "he was a bouncer at a Jack-in-the-Box in San Diego, he fished in Alaska. I thought, 'Hey, he's never going to get to Sweden.' So we got back together, and that was that."

"Wait a minute," the Samuelsons' guest says. "There are three that-was-thats in that story."

"I know. I guess the main one was the second one, when I came back to Bowdoin from N.C. State. That was when we really knew. He hasn't made it to Sweden yet, either."

There can be no greater domestic tranquillity than that which prevails during a quiet evening at the Samuelsons. Dinner had been steamed clams and Joan's stuffed sole with a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau. She ran the first bottle of the wine across Manhattan during a promotion last November. (The recompense: a trip to France on the Concorde for her parents.) Scott contributed a great, high apple pie. Now he massages her feet with baby oil while they watch a videotape of The Big Chill. In the film, when the deceased Alex is described by the minister as "a brilliant student, having passed through a seemingly random series of occupations," Benoit turns her face to Scott, says, "Remind you of anyone you know?" and drifts off to sleep.

Such an evening is precious for its rarity. There weren't many in the hectic time after the Samuelsons returned from a three-day Bermuda honeymoon. "I can't tell you what I did in those days," Benoit has said. For one thing, she accepted a series of invitations to appear for charities. "I do MS whenever possible, and the Special Olympics, and the Big Sisters of Boston and...."

"I could shoot her for that," says Boston-based lawyer Ed Whittemore, whose job it is to handle Benoit's business affairs. But there is something in those cool blue Benoit eyes that would keep him from pulling the trigger. She knows what is important. Perspective shall be kept, and charity work is part of that. So is serving on a committee to choose a new athletic facility for Bowdoin. And even as she has been run ragged by public demands, she has worked to keep in touch with old friends. "Friendships take precedence over the obligations of being well known," she says. "When I explain that to promoters, race directors and fundraisers, most seem to understand. Of course, it seems that the things I really don't want to do are the ones that have the really persistent people."

Case in point, or, well, a case that illustrates a lot of points, about Benoit and about the state running has got itself into: America's Marathon in Chicago last October. "All year I had been telling both Chicago and New York [which fall a week apart and so are at each other's throats for top runners] that I probably wouldn't race a fall marathon," says Benoit. "The trials and Olympics were an ordeal, and the one time I'd tried to run three marathons in a year [1981], the last one was a disaster, something like a 2:39. So I said I'd see how the training went and wait until the last minute to decide."

Chicago race director Bob Bright, with a lucrative CBS-TV contract in the balance, kept assuring people that Benoit would run—indeed, the week before the race CBS advertised that she would—all the while seeking to secure her presence by sweetening the pot. Bright says Chicago's best offer was $50,000, but at least one authoritative source says it eventually reached $250,000. Benoit, who says she doesn't know how high the offer got, turned it down. "I just wasn't ready to run," she says.

But a six-digit check is some compensation, even for a bad race.

"I wasn't ready to do that to myself," Benoit says. "I couldn't have lived with myself later. Then or later."

In a similar fashion she has been highly selective in the endorsement contracts she has signed. "With Joan, the roads come first, then business," says Whittemore, who, in accepting this, reaches a new and refreshing level of agentry. "She has turned down five or six offers that would net her large amounts from companies because they would take too much time, or she doesn't use the product, or she can't even endorse the use of the product. One, I'm sure, was never refused before."

So she has agreements to represent Nike shoes, Maine Savings Bank and Dole fruits and juices, and is negotiating one that would make her an ambassador for the state of Maine.

She's been representative of Maine independence all her life. When she and Bill Rodgers lunched with the Jimmy Carters at the White House after the 1979 Boston Marathon, Rosalynn Carter happened to ask Benoit how she felt about nuclear power. "I told her," says Benoit. "She soon found out that wasn't lunch table conversation."

And try as she might, there have been some invitations you can't refuse. Ms. magazine voted her one of its women of the year, which called for a banquet. Joan and Scott decided to skip it. "Then they called and told me who some of the other women were—Geraldine Ferraro and Cyndi Lauper—and they were going to be there." Still, Benoit felt in need of a restful evening at home. "Then they called again to say that Peter Ueberroth would be happy to accept for me. I said, 'Scott, we better go to New York. If he can make the effort to get there, I can.' The point is, I haven't been a recluse. I haven't done everything there is to do, but I've done a lot."

Too much, by at least one banquet. Taking a bite of her salad as it was being whisked away from her at the dinner following HBO's telecast honoring the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year, Benoit felt a horribly familiar flush spreading across her throat.

"Are there mussels in that salad?" she cried.

"There assuredly are," was the reply.

"Oh, God." She has a strong allergy to only one seafood, mussels. She and Scott spent the remainder of the evening in the emergency room of St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan.

The silver Samuelson Volvo is sort of speckled on the inside from when Benoit rolled down the window to thank a guy who let her into his car wash for free and the soap sprayed in. She's heading into Freeport for the mail and on to Portland for fresh fish. She drives carefully at first. "I can't afford another speeding ticket," she says, "but it might be best if I did get one and had my license taken away." This doesn't mean that she considers herself a menace, just that she'd be happy to follow a simpler routine.

In these Maine towns many people call to her. She calls back with questions about schools, babies, dogs, boats and recipes. It dawns on the observer that she's no more famous here than she ever was. She collects 20 or so letters from her post office box and puts them on the dashboard defroster vent of the Volvo. At once the windshield steams up. She drives on, reading letters at stoplights. She was doing this on Christmas Day when she opened a letter from a woman who said that Joan had been rude to her and her daughter in the Cook's Corner Stationery Store in Brunswick on Sept. 26, 1984. "You looked downward, mumbled an undecipherable syllable, and left the store," wrote the woman. "We are trying to ignore the myth of unfriendly Mainers, in this case and point it is no longer myth."

"I was so upset at getting that," says Benoit. "It was two days before the wedding and I had a long list of errands. I was getting wrapping paper for the bridesmaids' gifts, it was 4:30 and there was a crowd of women around the register, all whispering. Finally someone said, 'Are you Joan Benoit?' I said that I was, and hurried on to the next stop."

Benoit is not perfect, but she calls to mind what connoisseurs say of beer or sex. At her worst, she's wonderful. Scott once tried to discover the very worst thing Joan had ever done. "There didn't seem to be much," he says, "besides losing her hamster in the woodpile."

It is a sunny Saturday and Joan's parents, Nancy and André, visit. André was with the Tenth Mountain Division in World War II and has arrived wearing a pair of 50-year-old herringbone tweed knickers. "I've come to ski," he says. This you can do from the Samuelsons' door. Benoit, though she has just run and eaten, hops onto her own skis, and father and daughter glide across the yard and into the woods, attended by the bounding black silhouette of Creosote.

Nancy is spare, direct and has her daughter's blue-gray gaze. She has come to pick up an outboard motor, inspect the latest work on the house, which André believes is progressing far too slowly, and to sit in the window seat and read and perhaps be drawn into some conversation about her daughter.

André, as Joan would, studied at Bowdoin, but Nancy, a native of Newton, Mass., went south to the College of William and Mary in Virginia. "But I grew up in the summers in Maine all my life," she says quickly. She seems representative of the community and continuity of the Maine that Joan loves, the Maine that honors the willful individual.

Of Joan's ability to almost hide her competitive nature in daily society, Nancy says, "Well, that's the way it should be, don't you think? Who wants to talk business all the time, if you know what I mean." She wasn't a pushy parent. Not at all. It has been hard for her to come to terms with the extremity of fatigue that Joan endures. "We believed that it was best that the children [Joan has three brothers] not be forced, only exposed to things," she says. "After that, it was up to them to decide how to spend their energies." Nancy can't really fault herself if Joan, once exposed to running, went to the limit with it.

After an hour, Joan and André arrive back. "Wore me out," they say in unison, pointing at each other. The parents have to rush off. "Invite us back when the house is all done," says André. "All done and picked up, sweetie."

Later, Benoit will go out for another light run, of six miles. That will make 18 for the day, plus a hard cross-country ski.

But cross-country isn't enough for her. Swift downhill skiing was her first sport. It was in rehabilitating a leg broken while skiing in high school that she discovered her talent for running. So the next morning, after a run and a fast breakfast, she and Scott chase their visitor into the Volvo and head out for the hour-and-a-half drive west to Sunday River, a downhill area on the New Hampshire border.

Scott crouches in the backseat, writing a paper on labor relations. Joan drives and narrates the passing scene, which consists of quaint towns, birch and maple hillsides and ice fishermen on white lakes. These lakes are different, more benign, than the ocean out the front window of her home. Benoit has a clear sense of the sea. "It's always there," she says. "Even if it's frozen, you respect it. Yesterday my dad went right out on the ice near Wolf Neck. I said, 'Uh, not me.' "

Talk turns to goals. What can she have left to attain after a world record and Olympic gold?

"Two-twenty," she says. A noble barrier. The first man to break it was Great Britain's Jim Peters in 1953. It is a 5:20-per-mile pace.

"But if I get it," she continues, "it will probably be in 1986, not this year. I want to do only one marathon in 1985." Precisely which one is a question. She'll train, reach racing fitness and then look around, in the same way that you try not to promise jars of jam to friends until you've picked the berries.

This is because of her still-hectic schedule and her still-vulnerable legs. In addition to last spring's thoroughly chronicled surgery, in 1981 she had operations on both Achilles tendons. That famous right knee isn't entirely well, either. "In the fall I ran off the road to chase a rabbit and while I was jumping a stream, it locked," says Benoit, who was terrified. "I was lucky a neighbor knew that if I wasn't running I was in trouble and picked me up." She recovered without surgery, but the experience shows the edge she is always near. Dr. Stan James, the surgeon who repaired Benoit's knee in May, took a good look around in there with his arthroscope and told Sevene that in addition to the intruding band of collagen fibers he snipped away, the wear he observed on the underside of the patella made Benoit's a "limited mileage knee."

Benoit has been driving behind a rather slow car for a few miles. Finally she says, "This guy is just puttering!"

Scott looks up at the note of irritation in her voice. "Joan, slow down or pass him," he says, "but don't tailgate."

"Scott, it's so sad to see this person just creep."

"Well," he says, "if you're going to follow so close, I sure can't study." He closes his books and reaches to rub Benoit's shoulders.

They reach the Sunday River Lodge and race for the lift. For four hours they describe voluptuous curves down the velvety hill. Late in the afternoon, the powder rises behind their skis in rosy, back-lit incandescence. When Joan comes into the lodge, her eyes, her mother's eyes, are as vacant as after a hard race. She's so cold and tired that Scott has to break her ski boots from her ankles.

Yet she revives quickly and insists on driving at least partway home, so that Scott can continue to study. The car is soon filled with the warm ache and wet wool atmosphere of all rides back from skiing. The clouds are pink breath on a blue-gray sky. Benoit has another Joan, Baez, on the tape deck, singing, "You suffered sweeter for me than anyone I've ever known."

"When we skied as kids, we each got a quarter," says Benoit. "And for that 25 cents you could get a pack of gum, a Coke, a sugar-glazed doughnut and a candy bar. That was when I was about six." She's in happy reverie. "See, we never got an allowance growing up, because our bus stop was at a candy store."

There was discipline in the Benoit household then. "Yes, for some reason we were allowed to have sweets and sodas while skiing, but when we came home from the hill there would always be two sodas left from the six-pack, and woe to anyone in the house responsible if those sodas weren't still there the next weekend."

Yet she wishes not to give an image of harshness. "My parents never would have grounded us, though. What a perfect word, grounded!" She growls it out. "My friends were always saying, 'Ah, I got grounded.' "

Darkness has fallen. Scott takes over the wheel. Joan keeps musing about what her parents found most vital. "One thing that they simply didn't permit was skiing out of control," she says. "But they wouldn't have grounded us for it." She's silly about that word, intoxicated by it. And then she realizes they are lost.

Scott has penetrated a maze of little country roads. There are no signs. He gets directions for Freeport at a gas station while Joan shields her face in the backseat. The directions don't seem to fit the roads they find. Scott goes along on dead reckoning for a while. Joan frets at being lost in Maine, of all places. Then Scott predicts that there will be a country store at the next intersection, and there it is, the Pownal Variety Store. "Joanie," he says, "you've run out here."

Soon they are home, and later, after lobsters, they watch—at the visitor's urging—a tape of Olympic highlights. The scenes come back to bright, pastel life. Vivid, yet suddenly seeming long ago. And there's Benoit, emerging from her tunnel of second thoughts, finishing fresh. On the victory stand, hand over her heart, she smiles a fetching, brave smile and gives a good wink. "After watching some of the guys who had won," she says, "I was determined not to cry. But I sure blinked a lot."

As does the visitor. The moment seems to embody her capable, sweet toughness. She's a lesson to all people of success. It's not victory that she celebrates but being unharmed by victory. Sure she has been grounded. Superbly grounded.



Neither Joan nor Scott goes off half-baked. He's as serious about grad school as she is about running.



Benoit won the Olympic trial marathon 17 days after an operation on her right knee.



Becapped, Benoit won at the L.A. Games; dry-eyed (but just barely), she accepted her gold.



[See caption above.]



While Scott studies and leaves for class, Joan catches up on business in their Wellesley digs.



Benoit's nearly restored house in Freeport is a haven for her and for wintering-over birds.



Benoit named her black Labrador Creosote for obvious reasons.



André was a mountain trooper in World War II and still cross-country skis with his daughter.



Benoit isn't a talker while she's training, which makes Creosote her perfect running partner.



Keeping house and keeping up with her running commitments means Benoit does double duty.



Digging out every edible bit of lobster is Benoit's forte—and a bonus for her guests.



As she makes out her training schedule, Benoit has a window-seat view of frozen Casco Bay.