Track is my field: Mark Cullen's international track and field blog featuring storytelling, commentary, and predictions and event analyses for the Olympics and World Championships. I'm writing from the 2017 World Championships in London. I'm active on twitter: @trackerati
Sunday, May 11, 2014
Joanie! Julie! Julie!
30th Anniversary Commemoration of the 1984 Women’s Olympic
How the West Was Won
The upset took place before the race began:
Olympia 22 – New York City 14.
Olympia was a dark horse if ever there was one.
Laurel James, who conceived of the idea of an Olympia, WA,
bid for the 1984 US Women’s Olympic Trials Marathon, says the most commonly asked
question at the ’82 Athletics Congress Trials bid meeting in Philadelphia was:
People knew where the other finalists were: New York (Fred
Lebow, the New York Road Runners Club, the New York City Marathon), Buffalo
(which had already been awarded the US men’s marathon trials), Los Angeles
(which had been awarded ‘84’s biggest meet of all), and Kansas City. Each of
these bids - but not Olympia’s - was supported by Avon, the then-dominant
sponsor of US women’s road running events.
Laurel James, a single mother of five sons, had first
approached the directors of the Capital City Marathon with the idea of hosting
“They were stunned,” says James.
They were even more stunned when James told them the bid deadline
was only weeks away.
Olympia pulled out all the stops. James’s oldest son, 29-year-old
Brent, put together a three-projector multi-media presentation, which US
Senator Slade Gorton narrated in person. A hospitality suite featured the best
of the Northwest, including oysters, cheese, thirty pounds of smoked salmon, three
cases of apples, and even a Douglas Fir. They also brought Olympia beer.
“One of our biggest challenges was getting the beer out of
the airport!” said James. She continued, “They announced it that day. We got
the bid and now we had to get to work.”
Originally scheduled for Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 13, 1984,
the race was moved to the 12th after Brent James, who became the Trials
Executive Director, convinced ABC TV Sports to cover it. ABC came to realize
the importance of this race and put legendary director Craig Janoff in charge.
It was only fitting that this historic race - to qualify
three for the first women’s Olympic marathon - was awarded to a city named
The West Was Won by Volunteers: The
Spirit of Olympia
It is estimated that Olympia had 4,000-4,700 volunteers.
They had everything covered, from individually embroidered pillow cases for
each of the competitors to marshalls stationed in every driveway along the race
course. The pillowcases were donated by two local JC Penney stores. Four additional
stores donated the embroidery floss, and all the pillowcases were embroidered
Elementary school kids made posters for each athlete’s dorm
room, and former world record holder Bobbi Gibbs made the trophies for the
three qualifiers. The Bower family of Olympia owned an oyster bed and sponsored
an oyster and salmon bake.
Businesses and individuals could sponsor an athlete for $1,000.
Joan Benoit was sponsored by the Fredrick Hansen Paint
Company, Lisa Larsen by the Thurston County Recreational Vehicle Park, Marty Cooksey
by the Vance Tyee Motor Inn, local high school legend Gail Volk by Pacific
Northwest Bank, and Jane Wipf by Seattle developer Martin Selig (who also gave
the association free office space in downtown Seattle – an enormous savings). Through
these sponsorships, every athlete had her airfare paid.
Nike, not yet a major player in the sponsorship game,
sponsored a mile marker for $5,000.00.
Timber giant Weyerhaeuser and girls advocacy group Zonta
co-sponsored a pancake breakfast, odd bedfellows united in common cause. The USS
Marvin Shields docked at the Port of Olympia for tours during marathon weekend.
Larry Nielsen, the first American to summit Everest without the aid of
supplemental oxygen, gave a motivational speech.
Gretchen Christopher of the Fleetwoods performed, and she
wrote an anthem for the Trials: “Women Can Do.” Even trash bags were emblazoned
with the Trials logo, and volunteers were instructed on race day that their
duties were not complete until the course was immaculate.
In kind donations were so extensive that Board Chair Darlene
Hickman estimated they reduced the original cash budget of $1,000,000 to less
than half that.
Sign of the times: the athlete guidebook said, “Pay phones
are available in the lobby and on each floor of Barau Hall.”
Where was Barau Hall?
On the campus of St. Martin’s College in nearby Lacey.
Why were the dorm rooms available to the runners?
St. Martin’s started and ended school a month early to make
the campus available for the Marathon Trials.
A cartoon in the May 6, 1984, Olympian, shows two women
contestants. One says to the other, “They sure went to a lot of trouble for our
marathon here, didn’t they?”
Her compatriot replies, “I’ll say. I don’t think I’ve ever
run on a red carpet before!”
The West Was Won by Tough,
Resilient, Determined Women
1. Joan Benoit (ME) 2:31:04
2. Julie Brown (OR) 2:31:41
3. Julie Isphording (OH) 2:32:26
Joan Benoit’s pre-Trials trials are indeed the stuff of
legend. While training two months before the race, the heavy favorite suffered
the first major injury of her career. After seeking a variety of therapies, she
had arthroscopic surgery 17 days before race day. While it was very successful,
she returned to intensive training too soon and, overcompensating for her right
knee, strained her left hamstring.
It was treated with an early version of electrical
stimulation (by none other than Jack Scott, who had achieved a sort of infamy
by sheltering Patty Hearst during her kidnapping), and by May 12 Benoit was
nervous but ready to race.
She ran a classic Benoit strategy and led by 6 seconds at
the halfway mark, 38 at sixteen miles, and 68 seconds at twenty.
Pedal to the medal works every time.
Julie Brown, meanwhile, ran to make the team, and in a
carefully plotted and executed race, did exactly that. Overshadowed by the
drama surrounding Benoit, Brown’s brilliant race often does not receive the full
credit it so richly deserves.
The surprise of the day was Julie Isphording’s race to
third. Ipshording, who was rated a dark horse by virtually every observer but
herself, was 23rd at the half. She harbored her reserves and moved
up gradually until she burst forth with a 5:16 twenty-fifth mile. She later
said she did not know she was 3rd until half a mile to go.
Odds are her exuberant smile hasn’t left her yet.
I have always thought that Benoit won the ’84 Olympic gold
medal at Boston in ’83 and at the Trials in ‘84. The day before Boston, Grete
Waitz set the world record in London. Benoit’s nearly three minute dismantling
of that record one day after it was set by her most prominent rival struck fear
in the hearts of her competitors. For her then to win the Olympic Trials 17
days after knee surgery made her seem invincible.
There was odd geopolitical timing to the Olympia race. The
Soviet Union announced four days before that it would boycott the Los Angeles
Olympics. Trials competitors agreed, however, that their focus was on Norway,
not Russia: on Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen, who would finish 2nd and 4th
in Los Angeles.
Benoit won her Olympic gold medal in 2:24:52. Her
compatriots struggled that day as Julie Brown finished 36th in 2:47:33 while
Isphording had to drop out.
While much was rightly celebrated about the addition of the
women’s marathon to the Olympic Games, there was not yet complete equality in
the distance offerings. The women’s Olympic track events still stopped 3,000m in
1984 – no 5k or 10k – before jumping to the marathon. The 10k was added in ’88,
and the 3k became the 5k in ’96. There is still one inequality left, as women
have only the 20k race walk while men have Olympic opportunities at 50k as well
The West Was Won by Running Brave
Three American record holders ran in this race. Joan Benoit
held the world and American record at 2:22:43 from her magnificent ’83 Boston, a
mixed gender race. For a single gender race, none other than Julie Brown was
the American record holder at 2:26:26.
The third American record holder was Seattle’s Gail Volk.
She became the first US high school runner to break 2:40 when she set the
national high school record of 2:39:48 as a high school senior. She entered the
Trials race as the record holder but did not finish that way. Six minutes and
forty-five seconds before she crossed the finish line she was succeeded as national
record holder by 16 year old Cathy Schiro of New Hampshire. Schiro finished 9th
in 2:34:24, a national high school and US junior record that stands to this day
– and a world junior record at the time.
Of finishing a non-qualifying fourth at age 23, Lisa Larsen,
a former swimming champion, said, “It’s not the end of the world. I’m young
enough and I haven’t been at this a long time. There’s still ’88 and ’92.” She
became the only US marathoner to finish fourth in three consecutive Olympic
Trials. Nonetheless, Larsen, Boston champ in ’85, now holds the distinction of
having been the ‘last’ American woman to win that hallowed race.
Gabrielle Andersen of Sun Valley, ID, who had dual US/Swiss
citizenship, was originally entered to run but withdrew to run for her native
Switzerland. As a Swiss Olympian – Gabrielle Andersen-Scheiss – the two time
winner of the Seattle Marathon gained lasting fame when she staggered into the Los
Angeles Coliseum and limped to the finish line, dehydrated to the point of near
collapse. This generated energetic debate about whether or not she should have
been pulled from the race.
Nothing captures the spirit of Olympia’s magical day better than
this letter to The Olympian from
Michele H. Davis of St. Paul, Minnesota. She, along with Leatrice Hayer of
Greenfield, Massachusetts, finished last and second to last, respectively. They
had something distinctive in common:
“This letter is to the people of Olympia and all the
wonderful volunteers who helped with the Women’s Marathon Trials on May 12. As
a participant in the marathon, I would like to thank all the people who put so
much time and effort into making the whole experience a great one for us. Every
little detail you thought of was appreciated.
I was the very last finisher in an unofficial time of four
hours and one minute. It was a personal challenge for me, being six months
pregnant, to finish the marathon. To my amazement and my delight, you the
people of Olympia, supported my effort.
It was a moving experience for me to come so far behind the
rest of the runners and have so many of you still waiting along the streets to
cheer me on. I will never forget May 12, 1984, as long as I live. Thank you all
Voluminous thanks to my longtime friend, Laurel James, legendary
founder of Seattle’s Super Jock ‘n’ Jill running store (I shopped there the day
it opened over 38 years ago) who made her voluminous files and immaculate binders
available to me.
The Olympian of
Olympia, WA, whose coverage before as well as after the event was definitive. Multiple
writers deserve credit, including Roger Underwood, Abby Haight, and Bill
Jim Whiting, former editor of Northwest Runner, for his work
in the Trials media packet.
Jeff Baker of the Oregonian and Blaine Newnham of the
Trials Communications and Media Director Jeanne McKnight,
whose nugget-filled press releases are, to this day, a treasure trove of
valuable information about this landmark event.