I am a Joan Benoit groupie. When my workouts get tough, I conjure the image of her historic gold medal win at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic marathon. She bursts through the stadium entrance, her stride perfectly crisp.
The crowd is on its feet! You're Joan Benoit, and you're . . . about . . . to win . . . the gold medal!
I've watched tape of that Olympic moment countless times. Watched her break the finish line tape as the clock ticks to 2:42.52. Researched her competitors. Memorized a stream of questions in case I caught the former world record holder stretching her sore Achilles tendon on the side of a road, pre-race. My questions would be brief, polite.
"How did you win so soon after arthroscopic surgery?"
"What's your stance on pasta as a pre-race meal?"
"How are you, at 50, still contending for the Olympic team?"
I'd stop just short of begging to touch her famous Nikes (though I wanted to know if her winning pair was mounted inside the Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, N.Y.: They aren't, though there is a well-worn pair of training shoes) and rate the chance meeting as once-in-a-lifetime.
It was better than I could have imagined.
• • •
Joan stepped out of my imagination and onto a boat near Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa on Jan. 29, a slight, sleekly muscular woman, taller than I'd expected. In town as the guest of honor for my friend Bob Gries' 50th birthday party, Joan chatted with everyone, signed autographs, and graciously replied, "Yes, I won the gold medal," to guests' inquiries — those who, unlike me, weren't star-struck.
My close-knit group of running friends and I gathered around her, taking in the moment, beyond glad that Bob's wife, Cynthia, had paid her appearance fee. That's what it takes to entice a former Olympic champion from her home in Maine to a Tampa hotel. I remarked that running aficionados must constantly be vying for her presence at special events. She laughed and brushed off the praise, insisting that most people who want her to visit are race directors looking for a running celebrity endorsement. I left the party late, still star-struck, my husband reminding me that there would be plenty of time to talk with Joan during tomorrow's 8-mile run.
The plan for the long-awaited morning was to wind through Davis Islands, a popular distance course for bay area marathoners. Joan stepped out of her hotel lobby right on time, a cap pulled over her short-cropped brown hair. It reminded me of the painter's hat she'd donned the day of her historic Olympic victory.
We set off against a strong wind. Bob, at the place of honor, was right at Joan's shoulder, chatting like an old friend. Once in a while he turned and gave me a thumbs-up. His smile clearly said: Can you believe we're really running with Joan Benoit?
We threaded our way through the first neighborhoods, and two runners broke off, unable to keep the pace. Joan slowed to make sure the rest of us were comfortable. I looked around at the remaining group, all capable runners — two seasoned veterans training for the Boston marathon, one woman who'd run within 10 minutes of Joan's recent marathon qualifying time, a smattering of dedicated weekend warriors. All were striding on tiptoes, leaning forward, trying not to miss a word.
As we ticked off the miles, she took us through her past and present.
Her first love is skiing.
She eats fish before most races.
She met Muhammad Ali once, and recalls a gracious, gentle man.
• • •
She'd love to march into the Olympic Stadium in Beijing on Aug. 8, a member of the American team once more, but she's realistic. At the starting line today at the Trials in Boston, she'll be the oldest competitor, likely setting an age group record and serving as inspiration to her fellow contenders.
The woman hasn't exactly been a slouch between 1984 and 2008. A year after she won her gold medal, she ran 2:21, a time that stood as the American record until 2001. In 2000, she placed in the Top 10 of the Olympic Trials. She gave new meaning to the phrase "Live Strong," helping Lance Armstrong through the 2006 New York Marathon. She has called marathon running "a metaphor for life," inspiring runners and nonrunners alike.
• • •
As we approached the bridge that signaled the run's homestretch, Joan answered my most pressing question, taking our group through the day of her historic marathon victory hour by hour. I wondered about the inner forge that powered her competitive spirit. I wondered if she knew she'd win that race. "How sure were you?" I asked.
She smiled and recalled the pivotal moment.
"My feeling that morning wasn't good — until I heard a competitor complaining. At that moment — at that show of weakness — I knew I had it."
I still channel Joan Benoit during my runs. I wish for a miracle today: that she can pull enough fire from her competitive reservoir to make yet another Olympic squad, that the magic of 1984 is sparked anew. No matter how she performs, my running mantra is forever changed. Joan Benoit is entering the Olympic Stadium — after running right next to me.
• • •
The Olympic Trials begin at 8 a.m. today and can be seen live at www.NBCSports.com/marathon.
Amy Hammond is a freelance writer and wellness coordinator who lives in St. Petersburg.