I have met just a handful of famous athletes. At Henninger High School in Syracuse of all places, I met the great skier Jean-Claude Killy. At the now-extinct Memorial Stadium in Cleveland, Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski signed my baseball glove. At O’Hare Airport in Chicago, I noticed this woman’s crazy fingernails and knew right away those hands belonged to “Flo Jo” — Olympic sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner.
The last is Kathrine Switzer. The picture you see was taken in 2011, the year Switzer was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls. How she got to Seneca Falls is a story worth telling.
Had race officials known Switzer was a woman when she signed up for the Boston Marathon as K.V. Switzer 47 years ago, they would have rejected her.
Sexism in sports in 1967 was so utterly pervasive that the Boston Marathon entry form did not ask for gender. It was just assumed that no woman would apply. At that time, the longest Olympic women’s event was two times around the track: 800 meters.
Switzer did not sign up to make a statement. She was not a rabble-rouser. The Syracuse University student liked to run long distances and knew that Boston did not expressly prohibit women. And, because her first name was always being misspelled and she had a literary bent, she thought that “using my initials was a cool, writer-ly kind of thing to do.”
When she showed up for the marathon with her SU friends, Switzer did not hide her gender, sporting long hair, lipstick and eyeliner.
Then, four miles into the race, the course of Switzer’s life — and women’s sports — changed.
Switzer was attacked for being a woman. Race official Jock Semple, riding in the press bus, jumped out, screaming “get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!”
What happened next is one of Time-Life’s “Top 100 Photos that Changed the World.” Black-and-white photographs show Semple lunging at Switzer from behind, trying to rip her bib No. 261 off her grey cotton sweatshirt. Switzer’s boyfriend, a hammer thrower, body-blocked Semple, and Semple flew onto the roadside like, in Switzer’s words, “a pile of wrinkled clothes.”
After the race, Switzer was disqualified. Semple expressed surprise that “an American girl would go someplace where she wasn’t invited” and vowed that the “Syracuse bunch would never run in this race again.” The Amateur Athletic Union banned Switzer from competition, citing, among other reasons, running over 11⁄2 miles and running without a chaperone.
The experience, Switzer says, “radicalized” her. It was a catalyst to prove that her feelings of empowerment and freedom through running were something that was shared among millions of women. Stifling it was plainly wrong ... and Switzer set out to change that.
That has been Switzer’s life work: to get women running in every way possible. She has accomplished this through a bunch of different capacities: as a journalist, broadcaster, organizer, writer, speaker, champion and activist.
Switzer’s forte is persuasion. She talked the New York Daily News into sending her to Munich to cover the 1972 Olympics. In 1978, she persuaded a Fortune 500 company into sponsoring a series of women’s events.
The Avon International Running Circuit brought a series of races to 27 countries for over a million women. Pivoting off the success of these races, which proved that elite female runners were capable of running long distances, Switzer lobbied the International Olympic Committee into creating the women’s marathon, which started in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. If you know anything about the sclerotic, dysfunctional management of the IOC, persuading them to do anything is an accomplishment unto itself.
Switzer, who covered that race for ABC, says that it was important to get the women’s marathon into the Olympics because “I knew when the world saw women in the most difficult of running events, it would change world attitudes about women’s capability.”
Getting the women’s marathon into the Olympics is Switzer’s biggest “life” victory. As for her athletic accomplishments, her biggest victory happened at the 1974 New York City Marathon. The following year, she finished second at Boston, which had begun officially welcoming women in 1972.
K.V. Switzer’s time in 1967 was on the slow side — 4 hours, 20 minutes. Eight years later, Kathrine Switzer ran it in 2 hours, 50 minutes. Switzer, wanting to prove that she was not “just a girl who ran” but a “girl who could win,” had gotten fast by running twice a day, including punishing workouts like 24-by-400 meter intervals and 15-mile tempo runs.
Fittingly, the genesis of her induction into the Women’s Hall of Fame can be traced to a Seneca Falls inhabitant.
In 1996, Cathy Troisi was at the Boston Marathon and heard Switzer speak. Troisi returned home to Seneca Falls, determined that Switzer should take her place in the Hall of Fame with pioneering athletic figures such as Billie Jean King, Wilma Rudolph and Babe Didrikson.
Troisi’s determination bore fruit 15 years later. Of her induction, Switzer says she is “grateful” and “overwhelmed,” especially when learning that her fellow inductees included Donna Shalala and Coretta Scott King.
On those few occasions when I’ve been at a big marathon expo, I’ve noticed that the longest lines are for Switzer signing her book, “Marathon Woman.” It was released on the 40th anniversary of her landmark run.
She hopes to run Boston on the 50th anniversary in 2017.
Another book of Switzer’s, “26.2 Stories,” which she co-authored with her husband, Roger Robinson, has been touted as one of the top five running books of all time.
Scott Porter’s “Going the Distance” appears on the second and fourth Mondays each month in the Finger Lakes Times. Contact Porter with ideas and input at firstname.lastname@example.org.