A two-time All-American cross-country runner in college, Joan Benoit had twice set Boston Marathon records – breaking the previous world record by eight minutes in the 1983 event – and was considered one of the favorites as Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games approached, with the women’s marathon set to make its Olympic debut.
But less than one month before the U.S. Olympic Trials, during a 20-mile training run, Benoit severely injured her knee. She traveled from her home in Maine across the country to visit a specialist, figuring that the likely prescription was simply to rest.
However, the prognosis was more serious and just 17 days before the Trials, Benoit had arthroscopic surgery.
At the time, there was concern that Benoit would miss the Trials – and be left off the Olympic Team.
Benoit herself later admitted that she was concerned. But it turned out that one of the most competitive women in the world still had what it took. Not only did Benoit finish in the top three to secure a spot on the Olympic Team, but she went out at a blistering pace – knowing she wouldn’t be able to muster a strong finishing kick if needed – and still pulled away to finish first in 2 hours 31 minute and 41 seconds.
Three months later, at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, Benoit was ready to take on the world’s best. It took nearly seven fewer minutes to finish the course and she sprinted to the finish line in 2 hours 24 minutes and 52 seconds, taking the gold medal by nearly 1 ½ minutes.
“For as long as I can remember, I have been setting goals for myself and dealing with the consequences of either meeting or falling short of them,” Benoit said years later. “I have tried to accept my setbacks. … But I also believe that someone – who, for me, is God – expects me to push against the obstacles with all my strength and to give up only when I am fairly and honestly defeated.
“I look at victory as milestones on a very long highway.”