Tribute to Grete Waitz 1953-2011 In April of this year, not long after we lost the fitness guru Jack LaLanne, we lost another one of my heroes Grete Waitz. She was a role model and a pioneer of modern day woman’s running. At the age of 57 Waitz lost a six year fight with cancer she faced with the same determination and distinction that made her a champion and a most beloved figure in the history of woman’s sport.
Grete was an icon in long-distance running. However it did not start that way. She almost missed her chance to show the world and herself what an incredible athlete she was. In 1978 at 24, Grete’s nickname on the Norwegian national track team was “grandma”. She had reached her potential in the oval. In those days the longest Olympic event women were allowed to run was 1500 meters. That is 1 mile on the track. Men were running 10,000 meters, which is 6.2 miles. Grete was about to retire and hang up her shoes, there were no races for her to test her endurance.
One must recall that it was 1972 when President Nixon signed Title IX into law, banning sex discrimination in schools. This received federal funding. Long before Title IX was enacted, women were not allowed to play sports because of the notion that physical activity would damage their reproductive organs. However, the lack of school sports prior to Title IX did not deter women from participating in athletics. Many of my heroes like Grete were the woman that challenged the rules and conventions of society. They made the choice to go ahead and participate in sports; to go after what men have always been “allowed” to do. This was the real beginning for women to be allowed to play in sports and Grete was there with grace and determination.
In 1978 Grete decided to run in the New York City marathon which was one of the biggest marathon events of the times. Waitz captured the first of her nine New York City Marathon titles in 1978, setting a world record in 2 hours, 32 minutes, 30 seconds in her first attempt at 26.2 miles. No one else, man or woman, can claim this achievement.
Woman all over the world (including yours truly) were just starting to run (or jog, which was the more accepted term). I remember buying a pair of Converse “running” shoes in 1975. They were just flat tops with no support. It was not until the mid 80’s that athletic shoe companies were coming out with running shoes designed specifically for woman. In fact in 1982 the first woman’s shoe to come out was the Reebok Freestyle designed for “aerobics”. Remember the leotard tights and ankle warmer socks?
In the 70s woman were coming out, sneaking into races that were allowing only men. Before 1972 woman were barred from running the famous Boston Marathon but it did not stop them. I love the story of Roberta Gibb who hid behind a bush at the start of the Boston Marathon, sneaking into the field and finishing the race in an unofficial time of 3:21:25. She was the first woman known to complete the demanding Boston course. Gibbs’ inspiration to run?...The return of her race entry with a note saying that women were not physically capable of running a marathon. "I hadn't intended to make a feminist statement," said Gibb. "I was running against the distance [not the men] and I was measuring myself with my own potential."
Grete like Gibb was thinking outside the box and showed woman all over the world that is was possible to train not just for 1,500m, but also for the 3,000m and all the way up to the taboo event of the marathon. She was the pioneer of the woman’s marathon and she was very fast!
In 1983 Grete Waitz won the gold medal in the first ever world championship woman’s marathon. The first Olympic marathon event was in 1984 and Grete was there. She received the silver medal as her dear friend Joan Benoit made the gold. It was an amazing event. Joan Benoit accelerated ahead of the field at the 2 mile mark and never saw them again. Benoit is also a major force in the history of woman’s running- another story to be told someday.
Benoit said this about Grete "To me, Grete stood for goodness, greatness, graciousness, and generosity. She exuded all those qualities. We'll miss her, of course. But we're grateful for all the shared miles.”