FARMINGTON — University of Maine graduates got an emotional sendoff during Saturday’s commencement from their senior class speaker and Joan Benoit Samuelson, a hero and role model for women everywhere.

In turn, they helped Chelsea Lear-Ward recover her composure during her senior class speech by applauding loudly along with a few thousand people when she stumbled over her words while wiping tears from her eyes.

“You deserve to pat yourself on the back, because graduating from college is a big deal,” said Lear-Ward, of Levant. “We survived. We survived 8 a.m. lectures. …We survived breakups and makeups, but most importantly, we lived.

“I can only speak for myself, but these four years wouldn’t have been worthwhile without all of you, and for that, I thank you,” she said to her 368 classmates.

With a major in community health education and a minor in environmental studies, Lear-Ward is interested in helping to promote health through sustainability.

She plans to move to Washington state to work in the wellness field, F. Celeste Branham, UMF vice president for student and community services, told the crowd when introducing the senior class speaker.

“Tell your parents, friends and professors and loved ones how much they mean to you,” Lear-Ward said, her voice breaking with emotion. Then, she stopped mid sentence, wiping tears and shaking her head from side to side. The graduates immediately responded with enthusiastic applause and shouts.

Smiling broadly, Lear-Ward, repeated herself, saying, “If it wasn’t for them, you wouldn’t have shaped into the beautiful person you are today. …We are the future. It is in our hands to better our society.”

She urged the class to “work your butts off. Life won’t be served on a silver spoon.”

That was Benoit Samuelson’s message as well, when the Olympic gold medalist and champion for women’s distance running delivered the commencement address.

UMF President Kathryn Foster introduced Benoit Samuelson before awarding her an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters for her significant contributions.

A Maine native and one of the nation’s most recognizable athletes, Benoit Samuelson blazed a trail for women of all ages in the sport of competitive running, Foster said.

“Her lifelong commitment to health, fitness and the sport she loves has redefined the idea of a lifetime runner and inspired a generation on how to never give up on being your best,” she said.

In 1979, Benoit Samuelson received All-American honors in cross-country and track and won the Boston Marathon — setting an American and course record — all before she graduated from college. She went on to win the Boston Marathon again in 1983, shattering the American record and breaking the world record by more than two minutes.

One year later, she made history by winning the inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles, running the last 21 miles of the race ahead of all competitors. In 1985, she raced to victory in the Chicago Marathon, setting a new American record, and in 2000 she was named a 20th Century Top Athlete by Sports Illustrated.

“In the four decades she has been involved in the sport, Joan has taken every opportunity to give back to the sport and to the community,” Foster said.

Like Lear-Ward who was moved to tears by her introduction from Branham, Benoit Samuelson said, “Wow, I almost rained tears after that introduction. Graduates, ‘Once upon a time’ has arrived.”

She shared her story about running for recovery from a broken leg due to a skiing accident at the age of 15 while following her childhood dream to become an Olympic skier.

“Back then, very few women were seen running on the roads,” she said. “I was embarrassed to be seen running, so whenever a car passed me, I would stop and pretend to pick flowers, all the while developing a passion to run.”

Today, with close to 150,000 miles logged from running, Benoit Samuelson told the graduates there isn’t any finish line in their lives, only roads with many blind turns to run down while ignoring dead ends.

“When I say hard work — and Chelsea said the same thing — I really mean it,” she said. “You will have setbacks and challenges from which you will have to reboot and reroute.”

In closing, Benoit Samuelson said, “UMF graduates, my most heartfelt congratulations and gratitude. Let’s get on with the story of your graduation while keeping in mind and stride that there is no finish line to your education, potential, opportunities, dreams and contributions.”

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