A lifetime later, Samuelson hopes to run in marathon First women's winner, 38, is doing it for her children

February 10, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- As Joan Samuelson made her way through a hotel hallway yesterday, people kept thrusting the same poster in front of her to autograph. It seemed to be of a different person, and, in many ways, it was.

The picture on the poster was from the 1984 Olympics, showing a tired but happy marathoner holding an American flag after her victory lap at the Los Angeles Coliseum. It was a picture of Joan Benoit after winning the first women's marathon in Olympic history.

It was taken a month before she married Scott Samuelson, three years before she had the first of their two children. It was also before her dark hair had turned mostly gray and her life in Freeport, Maine, left little room for marathoning.

"A lot of things have changed in the last 12 years," said Samuelson.

One thing hasn't changed: her steely determination. It will be at the forefront of Samuelson's long shot bid to qualify for one of the three spots on this year's U.S. Olympic team when the women's marathon trials are held here today.

At 38, Samuelson is seemingly a lifetime removed from the runner who burst onto the scene in 1979 with the first of her two victories at the Boston Marathon. Her qualifying time for this year's trials was a plodding 2 hours, 37 minutes, 9 seconds in October 1994, nearly 16 minutes slower than her then-world record of 2:21.21 set in Chicago the year after the Olympics. It was, and remains, the second-fastest time ever run in a women's marathon.

"For me, it's just an accomplishment getting to the starting line here," said Samuelson. "I'm here because I want to be here. There are different priorities in my life, but it doesn't mean that others things can't parallel those priorities."

The biggest priority for Samuelson these days is not disturbing the routine of a household that centers around the activities of her children and several local civic causes. In fact, one of the reasons she is trying to qualify is for her kids -- Abby, 8, and Anders, 6 -- to watch her run.

"They weren't around in '84," said Samuelson. "They really don't know much about this. Anders doesn't grasp the idea of competition yet -- he's a pacifist. I just want them to know that I do what I do because I love doing it. Life is too short not to try."

Not that her return to competitive racing has been easy. She has been slowed at times by injuries, typical ones like stress fractures of the foot and strained Achilles' tendons, as well as well as by bouts with asthma. Nor has training in the brutal New England winter helped.

And just last week, Anders came home from school with conjunctivitis. He, in turn, passed it on to Scott.

"We've been doing everything to make sure Joan doesn't get it -- including sleeping in separate bedrooms," Scott Samuelson said yesterday.

Scott Samuelson, an executive for a local toy company, said that he started getting the feeling his wife would make another try at the Olympics a couple of years ago. It was nothing Joan said -- "We talk about running very seldom," he said -- but just in the approach she was taking to the 5K and 10K races she had entered.

"It's been percolating for a long time," he said. "These things evolve. So much depends on health, injuries. So much is involved when you're 38. Things began to fall into place. She sort of gave herself some checkpoints. I think she decided around Thanksgiving."

Since then, Samuelson has tried to get in the same amount of training that she did back in her former life. She credits the family for allowing little indulgences, like the 10-mile runs she squeezes in between everything else. Samuelson admits even being a bit moody lately.

"I've had two different PMS's -- premenstrual syndrome and pre-marathon syndrome," she said.

Scott Samuelson, who recently qualified for the 100th running of the Boston Marathon, hasn't noticed.

"She just does it," he said. "When she gets back from a run, life goes on. It's not like brushing her teeth, but it's close."

One thing hasn't changed about Samuelson's pre-race routine: She won't see the hilly course here until she runs on it this morning. She didn't do it before Los Angeles in 1984 or Chicago in 1985 and barely did it the two years she won in Boston.

Samuelson knows that the odds are against her returning to the Olympics, of being able to do what she did before her children were born and her life became more hectic. But she also knows she has little to lose.

"I'm taking a chance," she said. "But life is full of taking chances."

NOTES: Among the 184 women trying to qualify are two Hereford High graduates. Stacey Nicholson, 33, of Lutherville qualified for the trials with a time of 2:47.32 at last year's Houston-Tenneco Marathon, where she finished 13th. Kate Ricker Kent,, now of Estes Park, Colo., qualified in 2:47.13 at last year's Chicago Marathon.

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