Maine's marathon heroine hits civic-minded stride with jam sales

From the day she came out of nowhere to win the women's division of the Boston Marathon, Joan Benoit has had a flair for memorable victories. Just 21 and still a college student, Benoit captured the hearts of many in 1979 as she crossed the finish line with a Red Sox cap perched on her head. Five years later, in the first women's Olympic marathon, she created another never-to-be-forgotten moment as she entered the stadium and tipped her hat to the roaring crowd. But her impish manner and crowd-pleasing smiles cannot disguise the fact that she is a fierce competitor and determined winner. And at times that determination overflows into her personal life. For some people, being one of the world's foremost female marathoners would be enough. But Joan Benoit Samuelson manages to find time for friends, family, fans, and community. Recently, she also found time to produce and distribute 60,000 jars of blueberry jam to benefit the Samantha Smith Foundation .

Born, raised, and educated in Maine, Joan takes her considerable fame and success in stride. But her deeply-rooted New England composure was shaken 21 months ago when she learned of the death of Samanatha Smith and Samantha's father in a plane crash.

As a charming 11-year-old, Samantha had written to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov in 1982 expresing concern about nuclear war. He invited the junior diplomat from Manchester, Maine, to visit the USSR, which she did, accompanied by her parents, on a much-publicized tour.

Joan had never met Samanatha, but was touched by her story. When her fellow Mainer's promising life ended two years ago, Joan wanted to help continue Sam's work. And this longing eventually evolved into Joanie's Jam for Sam.

The goal is to raise $40-to-$50,000 for the Samantha Smith Foundation, the funds earmarked for a National Children's Newsletter to disseminate Samantha's message of peace and hope.

Joan's husband, Scott, notes that this is a state-pride effort. Only Maine blueberries are used, the manufacturer is Maine-based, and a Maine bank handles the financing.

The personal commitment is evident. Not satisfied with just lending her name, Joan provided the recipe. The label was designed by an artist friend, and Joan and Scott were in Boston selling the jam at marathon time this year. Joan, who is expecting her first child in October and is recovering from an injury, couldn't compete, but was still a presence, taking her first try at broadcasting as well as selling jam.

By putting Scott's MBA to use marketing the jam and enlisting volunteers, the project has been able to maintain a low overhead. ``Joanie in the Blueberry Patch'' labels were attached throughout the state by Samantha's former classmates, students at Bowdoin college (Joan's alma mater), and girl scouts from Presque Isle.

``I'm proud and thankful for their help,'' says Samantha's mother, Jane, founder of the Samantha Smith Foundation. ``We had always admired Joan from afar, hoping Samantha could handle fame as well.''

Their Maine roots weren't the only similarities between Joan and Samantha, says Mrs. Smith. Both were thrust into the limelight representing their country and their state to the world, and both managed to remain unaffected.

Four days after the jam went on sale, there were reports of objects in it. It was quickly removed and each bottle checked by a flouroscopic inspection unit. No objects were found and each bottle was safely sealed.

Whether it was just a mistake or a hoax, this incident obviously caused problems, but the jam is back on the shelves now and selling briskly at gift shops and specialty stores. Planning distribution outside of Maine shortly, the Samuelsons are planning to sell the first 60,000 jars before thinking of making any more.

As for running, Joan intends to defend her Olympic title next year even though she has had to limit her workouts due to the injury and her pregnancy. To be eligible for the May 1, 1988, US Olympic Trials, she must post a qualifying time 60 days before that date - which means that after the birth of her child she will have only a few months to train and make the attempt.

But this sort of thing is nothing new to Joan, who came back only 17 days after arthroscopic knee surgery to win the 1984 trials and set up her dramatic victory in Los Angeles. She believes she can be ready this time, too, expressing the hope of running a half-marathon as early as December or January. And given her drive and determination, it's a good guess that come August of 1988 she'll be out there on the starting line at Seoul.

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