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Inside Access: The Inspiration Behind the Nike Women’s Marathon

The Nike Women’s Marathon will celebrate its 10th anniversary on October 20, 2013.  Since 2003, the race has brought hundreds of thousands of women from around the world together to run the streets of San Francisco and on the 10th anniversary, Nike takes a step back to celebrate the woman who inspired it all – Joan Benoit Samuelson.

Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first gold medal in the Women’s Marathon at the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles, CA.  It was this victory that inspired the creation of the Nike Women’s Marathon. In addition to winning the first Women’s Marathon gold, she still holds the fastest times for an American woman in the Chicago and Olympic marathons.

In the early 1980's, the longest distance a woman could run in the Games was 1500 meters due to the long-held traditional belief that women weren’t physically capable of handling long distances.  In reality, a different story was emerging on the women's running scene.

During the 1970's the women’s marathon record was slashed from 3:07 to 2:27 (while the men’s record didn’t improve at all), and 250 women from 25 nations entered the 1979 World Championship marathon in Waldneil, West Germany. In 1979, a Norwegian became the first woman to run a marathon under 2:30, finishing the New York City marathon in 2:27:33. 

The same year, a group of female runners banded together to create the International Runners Committee (IRC) to fight for the inclusion of long-distance running. Nike became an enthusiastic partner of the IRC, eagerly providing funding and exposure.  With Mary Decker and Joan Benoit on the roster of the elite Athletics West running club, Nike, led by Phil Knight believed in pushing for equality for women.

On February 23, 1981, the International Olympic Committee voted to include the women’s 3000m and marathon in the 1984 Games, ignoring the statute that mandated waiting four years before implementing new sports.  Nike celebrated the successes with a pair of ads. One rejoiced, “The Olympics Will Never Be the Same.” The second was featured on the back cover of the program for the Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials in Olympia, Washington. The ad was short and simple, but was packed with emotion: “Finally!”

As the summer of 1984 approached, Joan severely injured her knee during a 20-mile training run, forcing her to undergo knee surgery just 17 days before the United States Olympic Women's Marathon Trials.  She recovered from the surgery more quickly than expected, however, winning the trials with a time of 2:31:04. 

Three months later, in Los Angeles, Joan made history winning the first women’s marathon with a time of 2:24:52, crossing the finish line several hundred meters ahead of her competition and helping to ignite a running movement.

Inside Access spoke to Joan recently on the iconic victory:

What was it like when you heard the women’s marathon would be added to the 1984 Olympics?  

I was training very hard at the time, but [I was] training for the marathon distance, not to run the actual marathon in the Olympics.  I had run my first Boston, I had run the Nike OTC Marathon and I had run a marathon in Auckland New Zealand that was pushing 100 degrees.  So I was in the right place at the right time you could say.  When the announcement was made I was ecstatic, I couldn’t believe I had come along at the right time, and I’ll always be indebted to the women who came before me and who paved the road to make the marathon a reality in the Olympic Games. 

Can you describe how you were feeling when you entered the tunnel before the final lap in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on your way to winning gold?

I think every child dreams of becoming an Olympic champion or a world champion and I was one of those children. So to actually see the possibility of becoming an Olympic champion unfold before my eyes as I approached the coliseum with seemingly no competition on my heels - I just couldn’t believe it.  But I really didn’t believe [I had won] until I crossed the finish line.  It was a dream come true.  I still sometimes wonder if it really happened to me.  I think I kept myself going by thinking of all the people who supported me in sport along the way, and how badly I wanted to give back to sport – which had given so much to me.

What it was like to stand on the medal stand after your victory? What were you thinking about as the National Anthem played?

It was very surreal.  Every time I hear the National Anthem at a World Championship or the Olympic Games, I can’t help but get very emotional, and it never gets old.

At the time, did you know then that a women’s running revolution was beginning? Did you ever imagine that you would play a large part in it?

I guess I realized that, if I indeed came across that line in LA first, I would be the first winner of the first women’s Olympic marathon.  I knew that carried a laurel wreath, but also a responsibility. And I’ve tried to do as much as I can possibly do to further the sport for elite runners, but also for new runners, aging runners and just promote the sport as best I can.  I think that I had an opportunity, and with that opportunity, I was given a responsibility.  But at the bottom of all of this is my deep passion for sport and for running.

You were the inspiration behind the Nike Women’s Marathon. What’s it like for you to be a part of these races and see so many women crossing the finish line?

I think I was just a small part of the inspiration.  Every woman running the Nike Women’s Marathon is an inspiration to me, and has an inspirational story to tell. I truly believe that.  And I really enjoy standing at the finish line welcoming in many of the runners, and many of whom are running their first full or first half marathon. Some have overcome huge obstacles to be there.  But the sharing of stories and the camaraderie that accompanies our sport is what makes this race and the sport of running so strong.