Olympia's Olympic marathon trials were a major win for female athletes

Staff writerMay 11, 2014 

Thirty years ago, history was made on the streets of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater.

On May 12, 1984, 238 women lined up at the starting line near the former Westwater Inn (now the Red Lion Hotel) by the Thurston County Courthouse to run in the inaugural United States Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials.

Women, for the first time, would compete in a marathon at the Olympics, running a course of 26.2 miles. And the three runners who would represent the first U.S. team — making yet another breakthrough in women’s equality in sports — would be decided in Washington.

Lacey resident Angela French was part of the field that day. She ran in six Olympic trials from 1984 through 2004, but said that first race in Olympia was special for the sense of what had been attained for women athletes.

“None of the others were the same,” said French, who finished 156th in the ’84 trials. “It was a sense of accomplishment for women — a changing point in history.”

How did Olympia, with its then-population of an estimated 27,000 residents, host a world-class event that became part of Olympic history and helped shape the area’s running community for years to come?

It started with the Capital City Marathon and an idea that originated in Seattle. And, it got a big assist from beer.


On Feb. 23, 1981, the U.S. Olympic Committee announced the women’s marathon would be added to the Olympics starting with the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Given the running community that had developed in the Pacific Northwest over the previous decade, the area was a natural fit to host the trials.

That was the thought held by Laurel James, founder of the Seattle-based Super Jock ’N Jill running store. James, with ties to USA Track & Field in distance running, settled on Olympia and not the Emerald City as the host city.

James and her son, Brent, were so impressed with the organization of the inaugural 1982 Capital City Marathon, they approached the marathon association about making a bid to host the trials. Brent James later became the trials’ executive director.

“(The Jameses) thought Olympia would be better than Seattle,” said Joan Cullen, a member of the trials’ board of directors. “They thought the community would come together more easily. And it did.”

To get the trials to actually come to the state, Olympia would have to beat out some major cities vying for the honor of hosting. The competition included New York City, Los Angeles, Kansas City and Buffalo, N.Y., site of the 1984 Olympic men’s marathon trials.

Former State Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander was the Capital City Marathon Association’s president at the time of the trials selection process and was in the seven-member group that flew to Philadelphia to pitch the merits of holding the trials in Olympia. Then-U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a running advocate, presented Olympia to the panel.

The Olympia group wowed the selection committee with a presentation unlike the others, Alexander said. The group showcased the area’s natural beauty — including its air quality — along with crates of apples, salmon, oysters, cheese and a fir tree named “Douglas.” The kicker was the local namesake beer, Olympia, which was provided to the selection committee in seven-ounce cans.

In a battle of David vs. Goliath, David won: Olympia earned 22 votes to easily outpace the others. New York was second with 14 votes, followed by Buffalo (five) and Los Angeles (two).

No city under 120,000 residents has hosted women’s or men’s marathon trials since.

Landing the trials was a pleasant surprise, but not a total shock, Alexander said.

“We had the most popular hospitality room,” said Alexander, now a practicing attorney at Bean, Gentry, Wheeler and Peternell in Olympia.

For 16 months, Olympia was in preparation mode. Then-Saint Martin’s College dormitories were used as the athletes’ village for housing, dining and other activities. There were 3,700 volunteers and an estimated 50,000 spectators who lined the streets.

Even more watched ABC’s national-televised broadcast as Joan Benoit — now Joan Benoit Samuelson — won, running on the same course as the previous two Capital City Marathons.

Julie Brown, who finished second, and Julie Isphording, the third-place finisher, would join Benoit as Olympians. Benoit would go on to win the gold medal in Los Angeles that August.


The running craze was launched in 1972 when American Frank Shorter won the gold medal in the marathon at the Munich Games. The Pacific Northwest became a hotbed for the sport, said Doris Brown Heritage, women’s cross country and track and field coach at Seattle Pacific University for more than four decades.

Heritage, the 1984 Olympic women’s distance coach, pointed to Washington native Don Kardong, a 1976 Olympian, and Spokane’s annual Lilac Bloomsday Run, which debuted in 1977, as the inspiration for a generation of road runners in the Northwest.

The idea that women could compete in marathons began to change, too. Before the women’s marathon became an Olympic event, the 1,500-meter run (a near-four-lap race) was track and field’s longest Olympic race for women. Jacqueline Hansen, who twice set world marathon records in the 1970s, and Benoit, a two-time Boston Marathon winner, were early pioneers.

All made for a perfect lead-in for the running world’s introduction to Olympia.

“Getting that race for the Northwest and having it in Olympia was a really good thing,” Heritage said.

Much like Shorter’s Olympic victory in 1972, Heritage said Benoit’s win at the Olympic women’s marathon trials and subsequent gold-medal victory were transformative.

“Because she won,” she said, “that was a big part of it. A person like Joan more than won that race, she continued to run and loved running.”


Running was popular in the South Sound before the trials and became even more so after.

Bryan Hoddle, the 2004 Athens Games Paralympics coach and 1977 400-meter state champion at North Thurston High School, said the trials helped shape the area’s running community for the next three decades.

“(The area) became a glut of running,” said Hoddle, also a mile-marker 26 volunteer at the 1984 trials.

“Races were popping up everywhere.”

Long gone are the days of a single running club – Olympia RainRunners. Today, running groups include Club Oly, Guerilla Running and Pints’ Pavement Pounders. There are dozens of races annually from 5Ks to marathons.

In July, the Lakefair Run — Olympia’s longest-tenured organized running event that’s evolved from a 10K to a half marathon, 8K and 3K — turns 39.

As for the Capital City Marathon, it remains one of the Northwest’s premier events. May 18 marks the 33rd annual race, which has more than 1,300 participants pre-registered for the marathon, half-marathon and 5-miler, according to the race’s confirmations list.

The boom was not limited to just recreational runners, either. In 2000, five local residents — Karen Steen, Linda Huyck, Phil Jasperson, Craig Dickson and Rich Brown — competed in the Olympic marathon trials in Columbia, South Carolina, (women’s race) and Pittsburgh (men’s). A sixth runner, French of Lacey, lived in Arizona at the time of her 2000 trials run before returning to South Sound in 2001.

Jasperson, a five-time Capital City Marathon winner, said what happened in 2000 was a special occurrence that will probably never be duplicated.

“It was a unique time in our running community where everybody happened to be at the right place at the right time,” he said. “It was mind blowing.”


1984 United States Women’s Marathon Olympic Trials, May 12, 1984

  • Weather: 56 degrees and overcast.
  • Race time: 9:25 a.m.
  • Start line: Evergreen Park Drive (near former Westwater Inn, now Red Lion).
  • Finish line: Deschutes Parkway (near Marathon Park).
  • Time standard: 2:51.16.
  • Number of qualifiers: 267.
  • Number of starters: 238.
  • Number of finishers: 196.
  • What was at stake: Top three finishers represented the United States at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles in the inaugural Olympic women’s marathon.
  • Olympic team: 1. Joan Benoit (2:31.04); 2. Julie Brown (2:31.41), 3. Julie Isphording (2:32.26).
  • Did you know?: Two runners who placed in the top 10 in ’84 — Margaret Groos (fifth) and Cathy Schiro (ninth) — represented the U.S. in the women’s marathon at the ’88 Seoul Olympics. Groos and Schiro (later O’Brien) finished first and third, respectively, at the ’88 trials in Pittsburgh.

Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473

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