30th Anniversary Commemoration of the 1984 Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials
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 the Trials.
“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 “Olympia.”
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 by volunteers.
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 as 20k.
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 so much.”
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 Lindstrom.
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 Seattle Times.
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.