Forty years after she made history as the winner of the inaugural Olympic women’s marathon in Los Angeles, Joan Benoit Samuelson of Freeport was named Maine Historical Society’s 2024 Maine History Maker.

Nearly 400 people – a mix of history buffs, civic leaders, environmentalists and runners – attended the three-hour reception and award program at L.L.Bean’s Corporate Headquarters on May 21.

“I ran cross country growing up, and she was my idol,” said Laura East of Brunswick. “There weren’t many strong females in sports from our area, but she would come by and go to meets.”

A four-part documentary produced by O’Maine Studios, interspersed with live remarks, told the story of how Samuelson’s love of running and love of Maine intersect with the TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race, which Samuelson founded in 1998.

“It would not be the event it is without her involvement,” said Larry Wold, a former president of TD Bank. “I believe there’s a fairly small cohort of iconic female athletes who broke records and barriers and went on to do other things outside of athletic accomplishments. … Joanie is one of them.”

The picturesque but hilly Beach to Beacon route from Crescent Beach State Park to Portland Head Light in Fort Williams Park is one that Samuelson ran frequently growing up in Cape Elizabeth.


As a child, “Joanie” and her three brothers played tennis, baseball and pond hockey and skied at Pleasant Mountain and Sugarloaf. When the family’s clothing business, A.H. Benoit & Co., sponsored a 9-mile road race in Cape Elizabeth, she was fascinated by the idea. But it wasn’t until she broke a leg in a ski accident when she was a sophomore in high school that she turned to running as rehabilitation – and she’s been running ever since.

“Before Title IX, there were not so many opportunities for girls,” said Andrea Cayer, who coached field hockey and successfully advocated for Benoit to be allowed to join the boys’ cross country team. “That’s how Joanie got started with all this.”

By the time Benoit graduated from Cape Elizabeth High School in 1975, she was the top girls’ runner in Maine and one of the best in New England.

She went to Bowdoin College, which is where she met fellow athlete Scott Samuelson. But Bowdoin didn’t initially have a women’s track team, so she played field hockey at Bowdoin, ran with the Liberty Athletic Club in Boston, and spent a few semesters at North Carolina State for high-level coaching. In April of her senior year, she wore a Bowdoin singlet as she ran the Boston Marathon in 1979 and set the American women’s marathon record.

“A hometown hero had just beat some of the best, if not all of the best, endurance athletes in the world,” said Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray. “She helped catapult the road race industry here in New England. She inspired legions of people to believe in themselves.”

In 1983, she ran Boston again and set the women’s world record. She was at the top of her game just as the Olympics were, for the first time in history, offering a women’s marathon. Then, on a long training run in Cape Elizabeth, she “felt something unravel” in her knee, requiring surgery 17 days before the Olympic qualifiers. Nevertheless she persisted – and the rest is history.


After watching film footage of Samuelson crossing the finish line of the 1984 Olympics, eventgoers in Freeport last month gave her a standing ovation.

“It was so inspiring to see a female distance runner from Maine, hear about her process and see that she’s still running now,” said Josie Spalding, a 16-year-old who trains on the Joan Benoit Samuelson Track and Field complex in Freeport.

Samuelson talked about how 150,000 miles, two children and five grandchildren later, she’s still as passionate about the sport. In fact, in 2019, she placed first in her age group in the Boston Marathon.

“Forty years ago, when I ran into the darkness of the tunnel leading into the LA Coliseum, I promised myself in a split second – because I didn’t think I had a second to spare – that I would give back to a state and a sport that had given so much to me,” she said. “I have tried to live my life by this promise.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at

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