SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Lynn Petronella is a ball of energy. Her pioneering efforts brought marathon running for women to the Olympics. But it wasn’t a straightforward tale, and she never actually had a chance to participate in the Games.
Her story began with training to earn a berth in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, where she saw her chance to compete disappear, as did the rest of the United States team.
United States President Jimmy Carter was unable to persuade the International Olympic Committee to cancel or move the 1980 Summer Olympic games from the U.S.S.R., leading him to a boycott of the 1980 Olympics, which 65 other countries joined. The boycott was a global protest of the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Her shot to run in the Olympics for her country was dashed, yet she never gave up on her dream—it just took another form.
“I got stuck on the boon of running and here I was on the precipice of having this amazing running career,” Petronella remembered. “They kept telling us it [the women’s marathon] might be put in. I lived on the precipice of maybe.”
Today’s female Olympians now have a full set of running races, from 100 meters to the marathon. But in earlier times, women were only allowed to run up to 1,500 meters, the marathon being considered “too difficult” for women to compete in.
Petronella begged to differ, especially after running the Boston Marathon in 1978 in 2 hours, 56 minutes—a time that would have won her an Olympic Gold medal as a man in four Olympics of the past 100 years.
Her dream had been to become the first woman marathoner from the USA to bring home a gold Olympic medal. Her training was done primarily in Colorado’s high altitude, which is said to bring a number of advantages. Notably, in high altitudes, the body compensates for the reduction of oxygen in the air by producing more red blood cells. A runner training at high altitudes for even a month can perform and train better because of the change in their blood.
Even though she hadn’t been able to run in the Games, she had enough impressive marathon wins and running times to be hired by Pepsi Cola as a spokeswoman.
Olympic Dream Still Alive
Petronella kept on running, winning in record time. Being the first-ever amateur athlete hired by Pepsi, she was in charge of the largest running program in the world, the Diet Pepsi Run America Run program, which involved road races nationwide.
Petronella’s new position with Pepsi opened more doors than she had anticipated. Her position in the Pepsi program allowed her to become one of the driving forces for bringing about exactly the changes she had wanted to see, supporting the 10K and Marathon to finally become Olympic sports for women in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Another door was opening as well, as Petronella became a part-time running coach and, in her words, “part-time cheerleader,” for Joan Benoit, another woman with Olympic dreams. Interestingly, Benoit (now Samuelson) had taken up long-distance running to help recover from a broken leg suffered while skiing. Benoit made the team for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Grete Waitz, a Norwegian, was the favorite to win the 1984 Olympic Marathon—she had never lost a marathon she finished. But she had never run against Benoit.
Benoit set an early pace, drawing into the lead, a place she really did not want to be, but settled into anyway, according to olympicmarathon.com. She led the entire race, earning the Gold with a time of 2:24:52—almost 2 minutes faster than Waitz, who came in second. Petronella was elated: women now had their Olympic Marathon, and the first Gold went to Joan Benoit for the USA.
Two thousand years of Olympic History and the myths about what women were capable of were shattered in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
“It was the greatest day of my life,” Petronella shares in her book. “I saw through her [Benoit] what had been possible for me. It was vindication for eight years [of training and unfulfilled dreams].”
Dreams Come Full Circle
Petronella observed her mother when she was young and it opened her eyes to all the things it takes to be a good mother and wife: balance and endurance, with a huge capacity for love.