Thurston County Running History: Olympia Hosted The First-Ever U.S.Olympic Marathon Trials For Women

Joan Benoit-Samuelson is number one in this picture. The lead pack is running by the old Olympia Brewery in this picture.

Photo credit: Runners World

36 years ago, the first-ever U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials for women were held in Olympia, Washington. Joan Benoit (Joan Benoit-Samuelson now) won the Olympic trials and went on to win the Gold Medal in the LA Olympics.

I was working at the trials that day and was standing next to running legend Doris Brown-Heritage. Just 16 years earlier in Brown-Heritage's Olympic running era, it was thought that women could not run more than 800 meters in the Olympic Games.

Doris Brown-Heritage ran the longest race available to her in the Olympics at the time, the 800 meters. She was 5th in the Olympic Games. However, it is likely she would have challenged for a gold medal in the 5000 meters and 10,000 meters had these events existed in the Olympics during her day.                           

Doris Brown-Heritage was the world cross-country champion at the time. In fact, she won five international cross-country titles and held the world record at 3000 meters and the 2-mile race.   

It was a historic day in Olympia and a breakthrough moment in women's sports history on May 12, 1984. You could see the pride on the faces of people like Doris Brown-Heritage. There was a bit of redemption in the air. Finally, the events that women around the world longed for were added to the Olympic schedule.     

The Olympic Trials were a big event for our area. We beat out New York City and others to host the trials. ABC Wide World of Sports was here to cover the event. The race was covered live nationally.                                                                                                     

Saint Martin's University in Lacey, Washington was the home of the Olympic Trials participants for a few days. We picked the ladies up from the airport and drove them to Saint Martin's to rest up for the trials. The logistics were pretty amazing in terms of making sure each qualifier felt at home. 

Each lady who qualified for the trials received a hand made pillow commemorating the first-ever trials when they arrived at Saint Martin's. I remember this being very meaningful for many of the participants. People from all over the U.S. came to watch the historic first-ever Olympics Marathon Trials event.                   

It was the little fine details like giving those handmade pillows to the ladies that gave the first-ever trials great reviews from the participants.                                                                                                   

Joan Benoit went on to win the Olympic trials after having orthoscopic surgery 17 days before winning the Olympic Trials!

Benoit and the other ladies who ran in the trials that day were barrier breakers. Their courageous efforts were amazing. However, I think their greatest accomplishment may have been the opening of a door for others to follow.

When major barriers are broken, the gateway opens for others to follow 

The trials had an impact on many people locally and nationally. For example on the local level, I served as the coach of three local ladies who went on to qualify for the U.S Olympic Marathon Trials after the Olympia race (Karen Steen, Susan Havens, and Linda Huyck). 

All three ladies were inspired or impacted in some way by having the Olympic Trials in our home town. The first Olympic Trials provided a platform and gateway for these three local ladies as well as hundreds of other women across the nation to go after their own Olympic Trials dream. 

Perhaps, local runner, Shelly Cooper Wilson said it best about the impact of the first-ever U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials for women: 

"I wanted to share a memory from that weekend: " I was a freshman at Olympia High School running track that spring. Jeff Ramsey (Jeff is a famous local runner who won the National Junior Olympics one year) was in town that year and coached me in the 400 meters. He took me and his younger sister to Saint Martin’s the morning before the race and we met many of the runners during their breakfast.

I did not understand really understand the significance at the time but I knew it was a big deal. We handed out water during the race. I was 14 at the time. The race made a huge impact on me. That seed was planted of “I want to do that”. Anyway, it was a great day and it becomes more special as time goes by”.

Shelly became a life-long runner after the trials. She still has good memories of this groundbreaking event 36 years later. Seeing and meeting all of those early running marathon pioneers was a special moment for Shelly that she will never forget. The power of that memory grows stronger with time.

Never underestimate the power of barrier-breaking moments. Many lives were changed for the better, forever by the courageous people who brought the trials to Olympia and the many amazing women who ran that day including the one and only, Joan Benoit-Samuelson.

The 1984 U.S. Women's Olympic trials were truly a great new opportunity for women in sports at all levels in America! 

If you are interested, you can read the stories of the local women I helped coach to the trials below. All three ladies are inspiring with their unique stories. Each lady took a different road to qualify for the Olympic trials.


Coach Weber 

Philippians 4:13

Larry Weber serves as the volunteer historian of Thurston County Running History. There are many other articles about the people and events of Thurston County Running in his blog.

Karen Steen from Olympia qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and set an American Master's record in the 400-meter hurdles. Karen had an incredible range from the sprints to the marathon. Karen also won the Capital City Marathon several times. Karen is a super hard worker and serves as an inspiration to many people.

Linda Huyck is also a U.S Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifier who went on to win the Capital City Marathon several times as well. Linda became one of the best Master's runners in America and won the Capital City Marathon outright at age 47. I have served as Linda's coach for 22 years.

This is Susan Havens in a different stage of life. Susan was the first person I helped qualify for the U.S Olympic Marathon Trials. Susan went on to be ranked as one of the top distance runners in the world as a Master's runner at one point. She also won the local Capital City Marathon. Susan's journey to get to the marathon trials is pretty amazing.

Life comes full circle in this picture. Benoit-Samuelson returned to Olympia and ran the Capital City half-marathon race in 2019 with her daughter. She also was a guest speaker at various pre-race events.                                                                                                                                                                      

Joan Benoit-Samuelson is presenting the Capital City Marathon overall winner award to Linda Hyuck in this picture. Linda won the race outright at age 47 in the 2019 Capital City Marathon race. 

This is a picture of Shelly-Cooper Wilson today. Shelly's life was impacted positively at age 14 when the Olympic Trials came to Olympia in 1984.

Shelly Cooper Wilson still runs today and volunteers at local running events. She is serving as "a pacing" volunteer at the Capital City Marathon in this picture. Shelly is the person holding the shirt with the green balloon nearby. It was a special moment for Shelly when she met the Olympic trials marathon runners in 1984.