Joan Benoit Samuelson captured South Sound hearts after she won the inaugural United States Olympic Women’s Marathon Trials in Olympia on May 12, 1984, and the gold medal at the Los Angeles Games that August.
Those first trials — which Samuelson called the biggest race of an illustrious distance-running career that included the world’s No. 1 ranking plus world and American records — help make her one of the most recognizable names in the sport.
While Samuelson was the fastest of the 238 runners that day 30 years ago, Olympia was the big stage in different ways for runner-up Julie Brown, third-place finisher Julie Isphording, and fourth-place finisher and first Olympic alternate Lisa Larsen Rainsberger. The three jump-started their running careers in the 1984 trials in Olympia.
Brown and Isphording earned spots on the U.S. Olympic team and ran in the Los Angeles Games.
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Brown finished 36th, and Isphording did not complete the race. Rainsberger went on to be a noted marathon runner, winning five events from 1985-93 while attempting to earn an Olympic berth as a triathlete.
Isphording said the fond memories she has of the trials and the days leading up to the race — athletes were housed in the dormitories at Saint Martin’s University — overshadow her Olympics experience in 1984.
“We were all housed together, ate meals together, had celebrations together,” Isphording said. “Olympia created a home for us and a place for us that felt like something so much bigger.”
OLYMPIC DREAMS REVIVED
Brown, 59, returned to Olympia five years ago for the first time since the 1984 trials. She said she was in awe of the area’s beauty, particularly the waters of Puget Sound and Capitol Lake, which she ran past en route to a second-place finish.
“It hasn’t changed much,” Brown said. “It’s still beautiful there.”
Now a family law and criminal defense attorney in San Diego, Brown was 29 in 1984 and already an accomplished middle-distance runner. She had qualified for the 1980 Moscow Games in the 800- and 1,500-meter runs, but the U.S. boycott meant she and hundreds of other American athletes stayed home.
Her Olympic dreams were revived in Olympia, though. She shifted her focus to the 26.2-mile race in 1983, a distance that better fit her style, and entered the trials as one of the favorites.
“It was a more natural progression,” Brown said about transitioning to marathons. “ ... The 10,000 (meters) was probably my best event had that been available on the Olympic schedule.”
Brown only ran in two marathons in 1984 — the trials and the Olympics. Electing to conserve energy for Los Angeles, she recalled her trials race as “uneventful,” finishing 37 seconds behind Samuelson.
“It was my goal to get through the race with as minimal energy as possible and still make the team,” Brown said.
She says that after the race, in order to facilitate a urine sample for the mandated postrace drug testing, she drank swigs of Olympia beer. Days later, she toured the Olympia Brewing Company facility in Tumwater.
Isphording, who now lives in Cincinnati, decided to skip her graduation ceremony at Xavier University to run in the trials, something she deemed as a celebration of women’s athletics more than a competitive race.
Seeded 45th, she gradually worked her way up to third place — passing Rainsberger in the final 11/2 miles — in one of the day’s biggest surprises.
She, Brown and Samuelson each received a 12-inch sculpture for making the Olympic team. Just as valuable to Isphording, 52, is a sponge that she kept from that day. Course volunteers handed them to the runners to keep them cool.
“It’s one of those special things that brings a smile to my heart whenever I see it,” said Isphording, who carried the sponge with her after a volunteer handed it to her at Mile 3.
“Who would have thought a dried sponge could bring that much joy?”
Isphording’s notable marathon victories include the 1990 Los Angeles Marathon, which was run on the same course as the 1984 Olympics.
SWIMMER TO MARATHONER
Rainsberger’s future was supposed to be swimming, not running.
In 1984, marathons were relatively new to Rainsberger, who was a 23-year-old student at the University of Michigan. She was running in her third marathon, yet had the eighth-best time entering the trials.
Rainsberger — who competed as Lisa Weidenbach for much of her career — had qualified for the 1980 Moscow Games to swim the individual medley, but missed out because of the U.S. boycott.
She turned to marathons after that experience, crediting the trials for jump-starting her running career. In 1985, she won the Boston Marathon and remains the last American woman to win that race.
She continued to run well into the 1990s. She is the only woman to win back-to-back Chicago Marathons (1988 and ’89), and she competed in three more Olympic trials (’88, ’92, ’96), finishing fourth twice more.
“Without the marathon, I would’ve gone home and become a schoolteacher,” said Rainsberger, now living in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Her bid for the 2000 Olympic trials in another sport — the triathlon — ended when she became pregnant with her first child, a daughter, Katie, who has become an accomplished high school distance runner.
ALWAYS AN OLYMPIAN
Although it has been 30 years since Samuelson’s historic victory, Denise Keegan, founder and chair of the local group Olympic Trials Legacy Committee, still calls her “an honorary citizen” of the community.
“She’s loved and highly respected by many here,” Keegan said.
Keegan and her Olympia-based group, which helped promote the 1984 marathon trials, brought Samuelson back to South Sound in 1996, when the Olympic torch came through the region before the Atlanta Games, and again in 2004, when the committee organized an event to celebrate the trials’ 20th anniversary.
Samuelson turns 57 on Friday and resides in Freeport, Maine. She recalled the trials while speaking at Marathon Park in 2004.
“Much of my time here remains a blur, but I can still hear the cheering from spectators,” Samuelson said.
Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 email@example.com theolympian.com/ southsoundsports @megwochnick