SI Vault
Kenny Moore
March 04, 1985
Women's marathon Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder Joan Benoit, a true Mainer, has fame and fortune in perspective
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March 04, 1985

Her Life Is In Apple Pie Order

Women's marathon Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder Joan Benoit, a true Mainer, has fame and fortune in perspective

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The house of Scott Samuelson and Joan Benoit Samuelson is on a point jutting out into Casco Bay, a few miles from Freeport, Maine. The Samuelsons are dividing their time these days between a room in a friend's house, in Wellesley, Mass., where Scott is pursuing a graduate degree in business at Babson College, and this rambling Maine farmhouse they have been restoring for two years.

"At first, people said, 'It's going to be nice someday, but where are you living now?' " says Benoit. The home is about seven-eighths nice at present, with a bracing view of frozen bay stretching to a horizon of darkly timbered islands. The Samuelsons' black Labrador, Creosote, is no puppy but a distinguished family member, trying to remain nonchalant about soon being bred. The coffee table, burdened with The New Yorker magazines, binoculars and bird books, is a cobbler's bench. The only trophy visible is an original bronze of a woman runner in flight, given Joan for winning the Olympic trial marathon in late May, a scant 17 days after arthroscopic knee surgery. "The sculpture was done by Roberta Gibb, who was the first woman to run Boston," Benoit says. "But it's out because it's a real work of art."

In the kitchen, a parchment invitation—an elaborate scroll—to the Reagan inauguration is held to the refrigerator door by a magnetized Mondale/Ferraro button. Benoit herself sits with a tuna sandwich, an orange and a cup of Prince of Wales tea. Her haircut is short and practical, her smile perky and wry. One easily visualizes her putting up her famous blueberry jam. She might be a model for a catalog house catering to those who favor the country life. Not L.L. Bean, however, even if that august company's store is but five miles away in downtown Freeport. For one thing, the family business, A.H. Benoit Company, a neat, four-story apparel store in Portland, once felt itself to be in competition with Bean. Now, says Joan, the latter has been overrun by yuppies, up from New York, taking on a little rustic camouflage.

Benoit is not a young urban professional. She's a Mainer, having grown up in Cape Elizabeth, just south of Portland. At 27, she's young but has never found joy in urban settings, and though her running is both her living and her exaltation, one somehow balks at calling her a professional. Running is seldom discussed in the Samuelson household. Rather, the vital concerns are reconstruction of the barn, canning, skiing, sewing, film criticism, the quality of firewood, wallpapering, local politics and how it's wasteful to eat only the claws and tail of the lobster. (Benoit relishes tomalley, the green stuff in the body, as well.) She keeps a half-bushel box of stamps she has torn from her mail. "I haven't had the time to even steam them off the envelopes. That's what I'll do when my legs really go."

She's small (5'3" and 108 pounds), bright, wishes to deflect praise and tends to employ a kind of Socratic method of explication. "See anything unusual about these jeans?" she'll say, making you move into better light to go over them in detail until you at last see that Levi's has labeled them the exclusive property of Olympic gold medalists and that they have 22-karat gold buttons and rivets.

Or, while driving, she'll say, "That baseball diamond give you an idea of what that set of buildings is?"

"A school? A prison?"

"No, L.L. Bean's warehouses. There's no sign, because they don't want anyone to know how big they are."

Benoit was in from a late-morning run of 13 miles, which was, as usual, unaccompanied. "I feel when I'm running with someone else I have to keep up my end of the conversation," she says. "But that takes away from my concentration on my running. If people are right in saying you're running too hard if you can't carry on a conversation, then I'm running too hard 90 percent of the time."

Few can do much jabbering at Benoit's training pace. "She's testing you," Bob Sevene, her Athletics West coach, says. "If you keep up, the pace quickens again, notch after notch. Sometimes she doesn't even know she's doing it."

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