An argument could be made that the 1984 USA Women’s Olympic Trials marathon race was one of the most significant American female events ever. This crossroad’s occurrence marked the demarcation of female participation in our country in the sport of running. It wasn’t until 1984 that a women’s marathon was first permitted in the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), a ‘good old boys club’ at the ultimate level, previously felt that women were physically incapable of handling the rigors of races of this distance. Through 1980, the longest contested female event was the 1500 meters. However, a variety of factors had coalesced to enable the woman’s marathon to now be added to the Olympic stage.
Newspaper headline of first women's Olympic marathon trials
Every four years some discussions arise as to how the American Olympic track and field teams are selected. The US has what can be a very brutal and cruel system. On the day of the Trials, the top three finishers in each event, if they have met the Olympic standard, make the team. No politics or intrigue is involved. Only the participants, on the track, field, or road, decide our team.
If another selection system was used, as most other countries employ, it’s doubtful that Julie Isphording would have been picked. Outside of the immediate Greater Cincinnati area, relatively few people were aware of this young lady’s potential and capabilities. Many others, starting with Joan Benoit, were much better known and seemingly had superior credentials. However, on May 12, 1984, the second Saturday of the month, in the appropriately named capital city of Washington, Olympia, two Cincinnatians, Karen Doppes Cosgrove and the 22-year old Julie Isphording, waited, with 236 other women, for the starter’s signal to release them on their way. Each of them had met the required time standard of 2:51:16 or better. Before three and a half hours had passed, when the last person crossed the finish line, 195 of them could say that they had completed this historical race. This contest was important because many individuals feel that it sparked the women’s running boom of the 1980s that has yet to abate. Women saw and felt that, “Yes, they too could take to the roads just as men had been doing.” It is typical now for more than half of road race fields, even the 2016 USA Olympic Track Team, to be composed of women.
How did Julie and her coach, Tom Grogan, confound the pundits and gain that coveted third position? They assumed that Joan Benoit and Julie Brown, if they ran to their capabilities, would take the first two spots. After examining the rest of the field, they developed a plan to try to run an even paced 2:30 (slightly faster than 5:45 per mile). If they could do that, they felt that the remaining third Olympic position could be had. Fortunately, two other highly regarded runners, Julie Shea and Betty Jo Springs Geiger, who were accustomed to running faster over shorter distances, committed the cardinal sin of marathoners. They went out too fast too early and they suffered as a result. Each recorded a DNF (did not finish) behind their name on the official results.
Julie approaching the finish line as she about to make the Olympic team.
Because of her more conservative approach, Julie was only in the 23rd position at mile ten. A crowd was gathered at the Running Spot in O’Bryonville to watch the televised broadcast of the competition. For a long time we heard no mention of either Julie or Karen. Then, well past the 20-mile mark, Julie’s name first came into play. A cheer erupted from our contingent. Steadily, she glided past others to ultimately place third. Indeed, the probable leaders occupied the first two positions. Joan Benoit (Samuelson) won the race with a time of 2:31:04. Later that summer she would add the Olympic crown. Julie Brown was second (2:31:41) and Julie Isphording claimed third (2:32:26). This trio formed the first women’s Olympic marathon team in U.S. history. Karen finished 29th with a time of 2:39:35.
Julie with her parents in Olympia
On the return flight from Washington a huge throng of well- wishers congregated at the airport to congratulate both Karen and Julie. Celebrations of Julie’s achievement continued. Her celebrity grew to the point that it interfered with her preparation for the upcoming Olympics. Prophetically she said at the time, “I don’t have a handle on the full thing yet. But I think my life is going to change.”
A beaming Julie as she leaves the airplane
Julie and Karen being congratulated
Jan Boylan, Victor Roth, Jim and Sheila Boland in the crowd
Dennis Jansen interviewing Julie
Karen with her son Ben
Suzanne Crable welcoming Karen
Unfortunately, the immediate sequel to her race in Olympia did not go well. She developed tendonitis in her right foot, which limited her training during the final month prior to the Games. Grogan contacted experts throughout the country for advice. There was consideration of getting a cortisone injection but that also entailed a risk of creating a more serious situation where Julie would be unable to run at all. After a thorough examination of all the alternatives, they decided to forego any shots and hoped that Julie could complete the race. Unfortunately, at mile 11 in Los Angeles the plantar fasciitis injury forced her to drop out. Of course this was a great disappointment, but still, qualifying for the team was quite an achievement. Let’s view some of the circumstances that led to her making the team in the first place.
The 1984 USA Women's Olympic Team
When Julie was born, no American female had officially participated in a marathon. It wasn’t until 1967 that Kathrine Switzer first entered and finished Boston. Meanwhile, Julie’s sporting activities, while living in the Cincinnati suburb of Mt. Lookout, centered on swimming and playing tennis. She was good enough to be a top player for her high school team, Ursuline Academy.
Normally, when someone of her ability appears on the national stage one assumes that she emerged through the high school and college channels of cross-country and track and field. Julie’s introduction to running differed from the norm. By the late 1970s road races were popping up everywhere and Julie followed this path exclusively. Running was also a means to get in shape for tennis.
An older friend of hers, Pete Wilton, was very enthusiastic about the sport and he introduced Julie to the local running scene. He was very helpful during the first few years of her running career. He would bring her to races and to Clifton Track Club meetings.
Pete Wilton, friend of Julie
After only a few short weeks of running, she entered the April 29, 1979 Springer Sprint, a 5.5 mile race, which encircled the Lunken Airport and Playfield. Pam Schroth, who was in the 20-29 division, finished 15 seconds ahead of the 17-year old Julie Isphording, who was wearing her Lacoste shirt and cotton shorts. This would be the last time Pam would ever place in front of her. The third place woman trailed by over three minutes.
In a later interview Julie said, “I've always saved that trophy because it was the trophy of a running man — they didn't even have women trophies — and because I was so darned proud of myself.” The next time she came into Phidippides, a running specialty store, Bob Roncker advised her to exchange her old pair of $8.95 orange and yellow Pony discount shoes for a better model.
Julie in the first Springer Sprint at Lunken wearing her Lacoste shirt, cotton shorts, and orange and yellow Pony shoes
In June the Diet Pepsi, 10,000 Meter Series arrived in Cincinnati. Bill Rodgers was the headliner for Pepsi. This was a much larger race and the competition among the women was more intense; Julie placed 10th. Almost three and a half minutes ahead of her, in second place, was the 23-year old Karen Doppes Cosgrove. During the upcoming years, the Queen City had these two gifted young women spurring each other to attain high levels of achievement.
Julie kept feeding the voracious ‘running bug’ by attending races on a regular basis. Dick Morath of Kroger’s was the force behind that year’s inaugural November 10k Esprit Yogurt Run. 1,193 runners crowded the street in front of the Montgomery Shopping Center.
Start of first Esprit race. Now we know the secret to Lee Hildebrant's racing success.
Karen, who work for and represented the Athlete’s Foot, won and Julie, now employed part time at Phidippides, was third. However, now the margin between the two of them was just shy of one minute.
Photo of Julie in the result program of the first Esprit 10k
Short note by Julie to her friend, Pete Wilton
The first big local event of the 1980 road racing season was the 15k Heart Mini-Marathon 3. Karen and Julie went 1-2 with Karen maintaining her superiority by finishing two and a half minutes ahead (55:37 to 58:04). However, something much larger, which would have a profound impact on each of them, was taking place.
As mentioned earlier, no exclusively female marathon existed in the Olympics. Kathrine Switzer, of Boston Marathon boyfriend bumping Jock Semple fame, now worked for the Avon cosmetic company. Kathrine and the company had a plan and an agenda for getting the marathon included. In order to show the International Olympic Committee members that female participation in distance events was worldwide and popular, they created during the late 1970s and early 80’s a circuit of events called the Avon International Racing Circuit. This was a series of women’s only races with events in 25 countries on five continents.
On April 13, 1980 the series visited Cincinnati. A 15k race occurred in Springdale near the Avon headquarters. For Cincinnati, this race was a big deal. Top runners arrived from out of town. Clifton Track Club members assisted with the organization of the race. A helicopter flew overhead. During the race, the press truck maintained itself a short distance in front of the lead runners so photographers and reporters could get all the material that they needed. Their close proximity came at the chagrin of one of the top female racers who publicly got the ‘runner’s trots’ (neither Julie or Karen). Karen tied for second and Julie placed fourth, however the margin between them was 1:15, much less than what they differed only three weeks earlier at the same distance in the Heart Mini.
Julie returned to the scene of her first race. Her second Springer Sprint, only thirteen months removed from when she began running, was almost five minutes faster than the year before. She was 16th overall and the first female finisher.
At the 5k Memorial Day Run, which began in Mt. Storm Park in Clifton, both Julie and Karen broke the old course record; Julie trailed Karen by only 9 seconds. Later in June, at the Pepsi Series Race, Julie improve 4:30 from the previous year and for the initial time she placed ahead of Karen, if only by the margin of 33 seconds.
Julie and Karen after the race
Memorial Day Race Results
At this time Julie began working and training with Karen, who was the manager, at the Athlete’s Foot sports store that was located on Hyde Park Square. Their training together proved mutually beneficial as they tied for first at the 10k Esprit Yogurt Run in a course record performance of 35:12.4.
Photo in the second year result program. In one year she went from eating yogurt to holding hands in first place.
That Thanksgiving Day Julie won the first of her eight Turkey Day races. Over the long history of the event no one has won it as many times as she.
After graduating from Ursuline Academy, she enrolled at Xavier University, where her father Don was the bursar. Xavier had neither a cross-country nor a track and field team for women at the time. With the help of Pete Wilton and the Musketeer Club, an arrangement was made with the University where she would wear a Xavier uniform at all the 1981 races, which she entered, in exchange for a stipend for travel expenses.
Meanwhile, the efforts by Avon were succeeding. In 1981 a nine-member group of the IOC voted 8-1 to add the women’s marathon to the 1984 running schedule. Russia cast the dissenting vote. Women now had an Olympic marathon to strive for. In an article in the May/June 1981 issue of the Ohio Runner magazine Julie stated that her long-range goal was to make the 1984 Olympic team in the marathon. This ambition, after only two years of running, speaks to her determination and drive.
Tom Grogan was a local marathoner and coach. On weekends he usually led a group 20-mile park run that linked Eden, Ault, and Alms Parks. Julie started to meet up with them. As he became more aware of her, he recognized her abundant talent, willingness to train hard, and erratic excessive racing schedule. On a whim she entered her first marathon (Columbus) and ran 2:47 for second place (behind Karen). To quote Tom, “And she did it with no training schedule, no intervals, no nothing.” He says witnessing this talent drove him and other members of his group nuts.
Success after success followed. She qualified for the August 1981 Avon Ottawa Marathon. This was a major women’s only marathon. At this point, based on a suggestion by Tom Hock, she asked Grogan to help coach her. They had only nine weeks to prepare for Ottawa and prepare they did! She placed third behind runner-up Joan Benoit. Her time of 2:38:26 was a world record for a teenager.
Julie (2nd from left) after the Ottawa Marathon. Joan Benoit is immediately to her left and Kathrine Switzer is on her far left.
It was during this period that they developed an extended plan with the intent of possibly making the 1984 Marathon Olympic Team. She accelerated her undergraduate accounting studies to allow her to graduate from XU in three years, in 1983, in order to allow her to train and prepare full time for the 1984 Olympic Trials and Games.
Tom Grogan now serving as the coach for Julie
By this time Julie was traveling and running throughout the country and in some cases going overseas. However, before entering the Trials, she had to get a qualifying time. Both she and Karen entered the October 16,1983 Columbus Marathon. Karen finished slightly ahead of Julie for the first time in quite a while. Cosgrove’s time of 2:39:32 placed her second in the race, as she became the initial local female qualifier for the Marathon Olympic Trials. Julie followed closely in 2:39:56. With her qualification secure, she was off to Orlando, Florida and the home of a friend, Judy Greer. For ten weeks she escaped the harsh Ohio winter and secured a good training base of 100+ miles per week for the Trials, which loomed only six months away.
After the 1984 Olympics, while periodically injured, Julie continued racing at a high level. She participated in the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Trials. Among her honors were winning the Columbus Marathon twice and the 1990 Los Angeles Marathon, after recovering from back surgery. She was selected to represent the USA in the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow by running the marathon.
Since retiring from racing, her professional career path has included a wide variety of venues showcasing her talents. She was a sports reporter for Channel 9 and served as a hostess for a radio talk show on WVXU, which she started, that centered on running and other fitness activities.
She was a marketing VP for Huntington Bank and has authored three books. Her monthly column in the Hyde Park Living magazine offers lifestyle healthy tips. P&G, Western Southern Insurance, and the Barrett Cancer Center are organizations that she has consulted with. Currently she is director of the Thanksgiving Day Race.
Her Personal Bests are:
10,000 – 34:40.02 (1985)
Marathon – 2-30:54 (1989)
10,000 – 34:40.02 (1985)
Marathon – 2-30:54 (1989)