Monday, April 21, 2003

American women hope to make mark in Boston

By Jimmy Golen
The Associated Press

BOSTON - Greg Meyer thought he was just one in a long line of American champions in the Boston Marathon. As it turned out, he was the last.

It has been two decades since Meyer and Joan Benoit swept Boston's 1983 titles for the United States. No American man has won since then and a there hasn't even been a hint of a sweep since 1985, when Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach won the women's division and Gary Tuttle finished second in the men's.

"You know, it's kind of scary. It all ended with me, and that's not right," Meyer said this week at a ceremony to honor him and 1983 women's champion Joan Benoit Samuelson. "I feel like Billy (Rodgers) passed it to me, and I didn't do anything with it."

The American dominance in Boston - from seven-time winner Clarence DeMar up through "Boston Billy" Rodgers - has long since passed to the Kenyans, who have won 11 of the last 12 men's races and three consecutive women's titles.

Defending champion Rodgers Rop leads another strong Kenyan contingent for Monday's 107th edition of the race, which also includes two-time runner-up Christopher Cheboiboch. But the women's field offers the United States its best hope in a decade of sharing in the winner's traditional beef stew and olive wreath.

Defending champion Margaret Okayo, who broke Benoit Samuelson's course record last year by finishing in 2 hours, 20 minutes, 43 seconds, is back. But two-time winner Catherine Ndereba is not among a field that includes three Americans with a chance to finish in the top 10.

Marla Runyan and Milena Glusac - fourth and ninth in the New York City Marathon in November - are entered, along with Jill Gaitenby, a Boston College graduate who was the top American in Boston the last two years (14th and 13th overall).

"I think you could have two American women in the top five," said Benoit Samuelson, who broke the world best by 2:46 in 1983, when she was the last person - man or woman - to set a world record on the hilly Boston course.

A strong finish would end a long drought for the United States, which placed at least one man in the top five for the first 60 races and never failed to list a top 10 finisher in the first 90 years. But in 15 races since 1988, the first American has been among the top 10 only three times, and never better than sixth.

On the women's side, it is more of the same.

After the women's race was first sanctioned in 1966, American women won 13 of the first 14 and never failed to place among the top three until 1986. But in seven of the last eight years, the top American woman was in double digits.

"We have not had a core of top 25 men and women such as we did 25 years ago," USA Track & Field head Craig Masback said. "We've had the occasional outstanding athlete, but clearly that's not enough."

Masback thinks things are changing, thanks to training programs run by the sport's governing body, and by sponsors that put athletes in groups to push each other. The Team USA California program, for example, produced Deena Drossin, who isn't in Boston because she ran in London last week, finishing third and breaking the U.S. record set by Benoit Samuelson in 1985.

"We're finally catching up," Glusac said.

Benoit Samuelson followed her second Boston win in '83 by winning the inaugural Olympic women's marathon at the 1984 games. She lowered the world record she set in Boston to 2:21:21 with a victory in the Chicago Marathon in '85.

Now that Drossin has the American mark and Okayo has the course record in Boston, all that's left for Benoit Samuelson are the medals.

Far from disappointed, she was surprised the records lasted this long.

"I saw Deena in New York, and I was telling people, 'She's going to break it.' And this one here," she said, pointing to Runyan, "is going to challenge her. It's going to go back and forth for some time. It's an exciting time."

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