What does it take to be an Olympic athlete?

The story of Arizona’s Joan Hansen, 1984 Olympic athlete

Posted 9/9/21

If there’s anything that the recent Tokyo Olympics showed us, it’s that Olympians are just like us, only more so.

They suffer from the same anxieties, and similar financial and …

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What does it take to be an Olympic athlete?

The story of Arizona’s Joan Hansen, 1984 Olympic athlete

Hansen is in the second to last row, far right, flanked on her left by Zola Budd and directly behind 1983 World Championship silver medalist Briggite Kraus. In the lead is Mary Decker (the famous fallen front runner) followed by Maricica Puica from Romania (yellow shirt) who ultimately won the race.
Hansen is in the second to last row, far right, flanked on her left by Zola Budd and directly behind 1983 World Championship silver medalist Briggite Kraus. In the lead is Mary Decker (the famous fallen front runner) followed by Maricica Puica from Romania (yellow shirt) who ultimately won the race.
(Photo courtesy of Bert Richardson)

If there’s anything that the recent Tokyo Olympics showed us, it’s that Olympians are just like us, only more so.

They suffer from the same anxieties, and similar financial and emotional pressures as the general population, but do so under the scrutiny of the media limelight and the intense pressure of exhibitionary performance.

The recent withdrawal of Simone Biles from most of her events at the Tokyo Olympics and that of Naomi Osaka from Wimbledon, highlight the very real mental and physical health issues that elite athletes face.

Olympians have achieved the pinnacle of success at a young age with singular focus and untold sacrifice but at what price? Many risk life changing and career altering injuries in the quest to represent their countries and only a few are rewarded with short lived athletic sponsorships and lucrative endorsement contracts.

What does it take to become an elite athlete, to compete on the international stage and perform at your peak repeatedly nationally and internationally?

What happens after Olympians grow up and all the hoopla and media attention are gone?

Few understand the unique pressures that Olympians face better than track and field star Joan Hansen, an Arizonan and world record holder in the 2 mile run, who competed in the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Joan and her identical twin sister, Joy, grew up in the Encanto Manor section of Phoenix and ran for the University of Arizona.

Originally swimmers, they were groomed to be athletes at a young age by their older brother, John, who subjected the young twins to the same grueling workout that his AAU Phoenix Desert Rats boys swim team endured.

As youngsters, they breached the gender gap and joined the boys team, swimming with and against boys 4-10 years older than themselves. Their success sparked the development of coed swim teams in the Phoenix metro area.

In addition to rigorous swim training, the older brother had his twin sisters running his paper route at 4 in the morning, preceding swim practice. Brother John would bike the rolled papers into the middle of the street and the twins would pick them up and run tandemly in opposite directions, depositing the daily news neatly to their neighbors front doors before racing back to meet again in the middle.

These unorthodox and fortuitous sibling torture workouts ultimately paid off as both sisters became world record holders.

Established as swimmers, Joan and Joy joined the University of Arizona’s swim team freshman year.

Track came as an afterthought when U of Arizona’s track coach spotted Joan’s sister Joy running around the track and invited her to the team tryouts. Joan soon followed as a walk on, when she realized that track practices were only one hour to swim’s arduous three. A bonus was that she no longer needed to wash her hair twice a day to remove the chlorine green sheen her blonde hair obtained from the pool.

An unlikely runner, Joan at 5’4 and 98 pounds quit track twice, but persevered and worked hard, transforming herself from a swimmer into an endurance runner, working on leg strength and increasing her runs gradually from 20 to 40 miles a week.

This weekly regimen was only half of what her coach desired, but Joan listened to her own body and its limits.

While late comers to track, nearly as soon as they started running, the identical twins began winning races. Joan generally stuck with track while her sister Joy eventually diverged to compete mainly in triathlons. Joan would later join her sister as a triathlete as well, coming in third nationally in her very first attempt.

Though plagued by recurrent injuries, including Achilles tendinitis and compartment syndrome, Joan Hansen set University of Arizona Wildcat records in the 1,500- 3,000- and 5,000-meter and one-mile runs. She reached second on the all-time list in the 800 meters and was a member of the record holding 4x800 meter relay team.

Her track accomplishments also included winning two Western Collegiate Athletic Association individual cross country titles, including the WCAA 3,000 meter championship in 1980.

In 1982, Joan Hansen came from behind to set the world record in the 2-mile run at the 1982 TAC Indoor National Championships.

1984 brought the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. Joan overcame injuries from a car crash, bike crash and sepsis to place third in the Olympic heat qualifying trials with a time of 8:41 in the 3000m earning a spot on USA’s Summer Olympic Team. As the Olympics drew near, Joan was still recovering from recent surgery and the flu.

These obstacles did not stop her, however.

Joan Hansen ran in one of the most famous races in Olympic history, the women’s 3,000-meter race. The women’s 3,000-meter debuted in the 1984 Olympics and was an Olympic event through 1992. It is an especially difficult race as it combines both elements of a sprint and a long distance run.

Like the 5,000-meter race, runners use up all their carbohydrate reserves and develop lactic acidosis during their latter heats, yet they must sprint to the finish. The race features a waterfall start with two runners per a distinct lane, however, as the race progresses, runners overlap and occupy the same lane, increasing the chance for collisions.

The 1984 Olympic women’s 3,000-meter race is best remembered for the collision between front runner Mary Decker and Zola Budd, the barefoot teen-aged South African who due to Apartheid, ran under Great Britain’s flag.

An advancing Budd clipped front runner and media darling Mary Decker, who fell to the ground crying in pain and was thereby eliminated from the race.

Mostly overlooked is that two other runners fell during this race, Germany’s Brigitte Kraus and Arizona’s own Joan Hansen.

Kraus struggled to breathe as she was suffering from a respiratory infection and could not deal with the smog. She collapsed and remained down and was eliminated from the race.

Joan fell 300 meters before Decker, stumbling over Portugal’s Aurora Cunha’s ankles as Cunha slowed slightly. Hansen’s fall did not garner the attention that Mary Decker’s did.

Unlike Kraus and Decker, Hansen, although injured and gasping for breath, got up and finished the race, coming in eighth, just behind Zola Budd. Had she not fallen, Hansen would’ve likely medaled. Indeed, the Bronze medalist time in the women’s 3,000-meter event was a full second behind Hansen ‘s qualifying heat and she was on pace to run at 8:36 which would’ve resulted in a silver medal.

Joan Hansen epitomizes grit and grace and embodies the true Olympic spirit.

While many would have resorted to bitterness, Joan handles setbacks with resilience and gratitude. After the Olympics, Joan continued to run with teams such as Athletics West and with Nike but she was not promoted as one of their stars and her earning potential in track was limited by restrictive covenants.

For instance, after breaking the world record in 1982, Hansen was offered a modeling contract by Eileen Ford, which would have covered much of her training expenses, but Nike would’ve considered it a breach of contract so she could not accept it.

Later, when she accepted a mere $300 in winnings from a triathalon, she was banned from track and field and could not compete in the 1990 Olympics.

Athletes on the US Olympic team are self funded, unlike those in countries such as China and the Soviet Union. To maintain top form they need access to training facilities and top notch coaching.

Moreover, unless they medal they do not earn any direct monetary benefit from the games. Recognizing that athletes and would-be Olympians needed financial assistance, Joan partnered with a financial services company to start a non-profit in 1988, the San Diego National Athletes Fund.

Though short-lived, this non profit funded 13 athletes with Olympic dreams and Joan devoted herself to its success at the expense of her own funding and training.

Transitioning to a post Olympic career can be daunting. Athletes face highly structured schedules and the loss of this regimentation, though freeing can be frightening.

Joan’s post Olympic career included coaching stints at UCLA, Mira Costa College, Concordia University, Irvine, the University of Iowa and the University of North Texas. She also coached the Junior National triathlon team, has worked as a personal trainer, designed and directed corporate wellness programs and has served as an inspirational keynote speaker and community volunteer, principally for young athletes.

Life also intervened and she got married, had a son and after 26 years got divorced.

A few months ago Joan Hansen moved back to Arizona, the state where her remarkable athletic career began.

I recently went on a hike where I fortunately got to meet and know Joan Hansen and can honestly say that she is one of the most inspirational and humble people I’ve met.

She faces adversity with grace, patience, determination and perseverance.

She sees the Olympic races not as competitions but as occasions to demonstrate peak performance, and showcase the best of humanity. Her favorite phrase is “that’s excellent” and she converts setbacks into triumphs.

When I related that I got lost on a hike, she re-labeled me as a trailblazer, instead of a lost hiker.

What does it take to be an Olympian? More than natural talent it takes perseverance, hard work, resilience and grace in the face of adversity. It takes someone like Joan Hansen, who demonstrates that the Olympics are a metaphor for life. You may stumble and fall down, but what is important is to get back up and finish the race and to do so with compassion and kindness for both yourself and others.

Editor’s Note: This story was submitted by Phoenix resident, Deborah Josefson, M.D.


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