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Born to run

Joan Benoit-Samuelson participated in two sports in college, became a decorated marathoner and remains an elite runner today

Just look at the student-athlete who Joan Benoit had become – and the potential she was only beginning to develop -- as she graduated from Bowdoin 35 years ago this month.

She was finishing up a double major in history and environmental studies. She also had doubled up in varsity sports, playing field hockey in addition to excelling in track as a distance runner.

Oh, and she had just won her first Boston Marathon.

The word “commencement” may never have better described how one individual’s senior year set her on the course of a life’s work.

Following another victory in world-record time at Boston in 1983, she won the first Olympic women’s marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. She’s never really stopped running, and last month became what is believed to be the fastest 56-year-old woman in Boston Marathon history after finishing with a time of slightly over 2 hours and 52 minutes -- only 30 minutes behind her 1983 time in the race.

Such accomplishments prompted Runner’s World magazine to call her “arguably the greatest woman marathoner of all time.”

But while running was a major focus of Benoit’s Bowdoin years, it’s was only part of her story – and that’s also true today.

Drawing from her environmental studies in college, she uses her visibility to promote causes she cares about deeply.

“I’m trying to use the platform I’ve gotten from running – a very pure sport – to build things that relate to our environment and our health,” she told Runner’s World in a 2013 interview.

Benoit-Samuelson (she is married to Bowdoin classmate Scott Samuelson) particularly has taken an interest in the bay waters near the Maine community where she grew up, promoting its protection.

“The way I look at it, conservation is to the environment as prevention is to good health,” she told the magazine. “As we get more people moving – walking, jogging, running – in the outdoors, they’re going to become more aware of how important a healthy environment is to their own personal health.”

She has done her share to get people moving, too.

She founded the “Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race” in 1998 to help support a range of charities in her home state. The event annually selects a beneficiary organization that works with youth, ranging from Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Portland in the race’s inaugural year to Rippleffect, a group that received a $30,000 donation this year from sponsor TD Bank for its programs to provide canoeing and wilderness experiences along with environmental education.

She remains devoted to her home state, and to her alma mater. Her class is preparing to gather for its 35-year reunion, and she plans to be present to lead classmates in a 5K fun run. Two years ago, she spoke to Bowdoin’s Class of 2012 at its commencement ceremony.

“It is important not to let the sun that greeted you during your matriculation four years ago set with your commencement today,” she said. “The sun is a remarkable and renewable resource that sheds light on so much of what goes on in our world, just like a Bowdoin education.”

Benoit-Samuelson also is a remarkable – and seemingly endlessly renewable – resource.

Nominated by James Caton, assistant director of athletics for communication at Bowdoin College.