Olympia to mark anniversary of 1984 women’s marathon trials: ‘We knew it was a big moment’

First women’s Olympic marathon trials were 35 years ago

In May 1984, Olympia hosted the first-ever women's Olympic marathon trials. Joan Benoit Samuelson won the race and went onto win gold at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
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In May 1984, Olympia hosted the first-ever women's Olympic marathon trials. Joan Benoit Samuelson won the race and went onto win gold at the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Joan Benoit Samuelson was hardly a sure thing going into the first-ever women’s U.S. Olympic marathon trials, held in Olympia on May 12, 1984.

Neither, for that matter, was Olympia.

Having undergone knee surgery just 17 days before, Samuelson was advised by her doctor to skip the marathon trials and wait for the 3,000-meter trials a month later. The Capital City Marathon, meanwhile, was just a few years old in 1984, and to host the prestigious trials, Olympia had gone up against New York City and Los Angeles, which would host that summer’s Olympics.

“We took on this David versus Goliath attitude,” Joseph Beaulieu, former president of Capital City Marathon, told The Olympian in 2004. “We knew we were long shots, but we believed we could pull it off.”

Needless to say, both came out winners: Samuelson won the trials and went on to win gold in L.A. in the first Olympic marathon for women. The trials in Olympia went down in local sports history, drawing an estimated 50,000 spectators.

To mark the 35th anniversary of the race, Samuelson, now 61, and other runners will be back in Olympia for this year’s running of the Capital City Marathon on May 19. Anniversary events planned for that weekend include a reunion dinner and ceremony at Marathon Park, site of the 1984 finish line.

More than two dozen women who ran that year are expected to attend.

“All these women, when they found out Joanie was coming, they said ‘We’re coming!’” said Denise Keegan, founder and chairwoman of Olympic Trials Legacy Committee, which formed ahead of the 1984 race to highlight its significance and to promote women in sports.

“Most of the players who organized the trials and participated are still with us — some in the 80s, some in the 90s — and we get to look back as a community and see what we pulled off,” she said.

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Decades are like centuries in the history of women’s sports. The 1984 race happened before Title IX, which gave men and women equal access to school sports, had fully taken hold. Women had been told it was dangerous to their health to run such long distances.

Laurel James, who helped bring the trials to Olympia, opened the running store Super Jock ’N Jill in Seattle in 1975.

“At that moment I still didn’t know another woman runner,” she said. “For me to even go into the sporting goods business, are you kidding? I was looked at as some kind of weirdo.”

But attention surrounding the race — not just in Washington but from across the country — helped change the conversation, said Jeanne McKnight, media relations director for the 1984 trials.

“We knew it was a big moment. We kept using the term ‘first-ever,’” she said.

On the day of the race, Samuelson led from start to finish, the same strategy she would use to win Olympic gold a few months later, according to Olympian archives. She beat second-place Julie Brown — who earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, along with third-place finisher Julie Isphording — by 37 seconds.

“Much of my time here remains a blur, but I can still hear the cheering from spectators,” Samuelson told the crowd at a 2004 event in Olympia to mark the 20th anniversary. “If it wasn’t for the cheering, I wouldn’t have made it.”

Anniversary events

Friday, May 17

Jacqueline Hansen, two-time marathon world record holder who ran in the 1984 trials, will speak at a luncheon at Hotel RL Olympia at 11:30 a.m. co-hosted by The League of Women Voters of Thurston County and the American Association of University Women of Olympia. Tickets required.

An invitation-only reception at the Capitol will honor women in sports, including the athletes and coaches who sued Washington State University in 1979 for under-funding women’s sports.

The Olympia Trials Legacy Committee will host a reunion dinner celebrating the runners of the 1984 trials at Hotel RL Olympia starting at 7 p.m. Tickets required.

Saturday, May 18

Samuelson and others will be at the Capital City Marathon Run Fair at Sylvester Park starting at 1 p.m. About 4 p.m., they will go to a ceremony at Marathon Park, which was the finish line for the 1984 race.

Samuelson will be guest speaker at the Capital City Marathon Pre-Race Dinner at the Capitol starting at 5 p.m. Tickets at

Sunday, May 19

Capital City Marathon starts at 7 a.m. at Sylvester Park. Samuelson is expected to run the half marathon and will hand out awards following the marathon.

Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.