by Gordon Bakoulis
A Handful of Female Marathon Pioneers Inspired a Generation of Women Runners.
© 2001 42K(+) Press, Inc.
Can you imagine being stopped by police during a marathon-training run simply because you're a solitary female? Being tackled, threatened, and cursed at by a race director while running your first marathon? Setting a marathon world best at age 38, winning the New York City Marathon, yet still being ashamed of your body? Entering your first marathon because women weren't allowed to run more than 1,500 meters in international track competition, and setting a world record by more than two minutes? Winning the first women's Olympic marathon, then running an American marathon in a record time that still stands after 16 years?
I can't imagine doing any of these things.
Every time I contemplate the obstacles women marathoners have faced and what they have done in spite of them, I'm overwhelmed by their athleticism, courage, and vision. I consider it a privilege to know personally several of the women who pioneered the marathon. It is the great fortune of us all that they are accessible, articulate, personable, and possess tremendous insight into the sport of marathoning.
When asked to name those women whose achievements as marathon pioneers mean the most to me, my choices were surprisingly easy. I must emphasize, however, that the athletes profiled here are not an all-inclusive—nor even representative—group. The women whose stories follow are simply those whom I've grown to most admire, respect, and just plain like. A list of female marathon pioneers is incomplete without Roberta (Bobbi) Gibb, Sara Mae Berman, Beth Bonner, Jacqueline Hansen, Gayle Baron, and Ingrid Kristiansen.
My Webster's defines "pioneer" as "a person or group that originates or helps open up a new line of thought or activity." The five women profiled here exemplify the bravery and originality implicit in that definition.
Nina Kuscsik: Doing What She Wanted to Do
Nina Kuscsik loves to tell stories. She devotes 25 minutes to answering the question, "How did you get started running?" It's a wonderful, rambling tale of idolizing Roger Bannister as an adolescent; falling in love with basketball and freestyle skating but giving up both due to a dislocated shoulder; reading Bill Bowerman and Ken Cooper and having an I-can-do-that moment; buying her first shoes from the back of an old warehouse; and nearly getting arrested for running along a parkway while wearing a cast and a shirt with red lettering that had been mistaken for blood.
But Kuscsik doesn't really like to talk about herself. Hers are more often "we" stories than "I" stories. In describing her first marathon (1969 Boston, after the pioneering runs of Roberta Gibb and Kathrine Switzer but still before women were allowed in officially), she stresses the training she did with her husband and two male training partners. Although she's widely credited with paving the way for the inclusion of the first women's Olympic marathon, she unfailingly refers to "all our hard work." When asked, "What would you like to be remembered for in running?" Kuscsik is uncharacteristically at a loss for words. Finally she says slowly, thoughtfully, "I guess for my love of running." After a pause, she adds, almost hesitantly, "And that my pioneering work created opportunities for other women."
When I first met Kuscsik in the mid-'80s, she was winding down a competitive career begun on the cusp of women's entry into the marathon. When I learned who she was, I was awestruck, though that never seemed the right way to act around Nina. She was so approachable, with such an infectious laugh, and completely unassuming—not at all my vision of a world-beater or feminist heroine. I grew to know her well through mutual friends in the New York running community and later through our work together on the Women's Long Distance Running Committee of USA Track & Field.
Kuscsik entered the sport of marathoning without fanfare. Her first Boston, undertrained and coming off a shoulder injury, was a 3:46. She didn't consider her run a pioneering accomplishment. For her, the race's most significant event occurred on the starting line at Hopkinton, where a fellow New Yorker urged her and her husband and friends to enter the upcoming Yonkers Marathon. "I didn't, because of my shoulder, but my husband did, and that's where we met Gary Muhrcke [who'd go on to win the inaugural New York City Marathon in 1970] and found out about the [New York] Road Runners."
Though Kuscsik's Boston debut followed in the footsteps of Gibb, Switzer, Berman, and others, she quickly began racking up firsts of her own. She was the only woman to enter the first New York City Marathon (she DNF'd due to illness), she ran 2:56:04 in New York in 1971 as she and Beth Bonner (2:55:22) became the first two women to break three hours, and in 1972 she won the first Boston that officially recognized women.
Typically, Kuscsik doesn't dwell on these feats and seems uncomfortable with the "pioneer" tag. "Did those people in covered wagons think of themselves as pioneers?" she muses. "I never thought of myself as a pioneer. I thought of myself as being able to do what I wanted to do." It wasn't always easy, of course. Though she laughs about it now, that incident with the police on the parkway—they repeatedly insinuated that her boyfriend had beat her up—unnerved her. "I was so humiliated," she admits. "I came home freezing and soaking wet, and my kids had to take off my shoes. I was trying not to cry."
No Women Need Apply
When prodded, Kuscsik recalls an incident from those early days that opened her eyes to the realities of the male-oriented running scene. "Once, back when I was bike racing as a teenager, I'd tried to enter a 50-mile race and was told, 'No women allowed.' I said, 'Okay.' Then, when I was a runner—I think this was in 1970—I went to enter a two-mile race, and they said, 'No women.' And I said, 'What do you mean?' It was an AAU race and I was a member of AAU. It was different from the bike race. I was just a kid then. This time I was an adult, and I didn't have to take it anymore. If there ever was a moment that got me going, that was the moment."
In 1971 Kuscsik began agitating for the official inclusion of women in all road races. She attended her first AAU convention that year (and hasn't missed one since, as the organization morphed first to TAC then USATF) and began to learn how to work the system to create equal opportunities for women.
Kuscsik became a master negotiator and consensus builder. "Nina was incredibly good at committees, legislation, advocacy, and working within the AAU and then TAC," says Kathrine Switzer, who worked closely with Kuscsik in the drawn-out battle for the women's Olympic marathon. For her part, Kuscsik refuses to take more than her share of the credit, repeatedly stressing Switzer's contributions and crediting New York Road Runners Club officials Vince Chiappetta and Aldo Scandurra with "making me unafraid to tackle this."
"We got everything changed. They couldn't ignore us," she says.
She took strong public stances when she felt it would make a difference, such as leading a sit-down strike at the start of the 1972 New York City Marathon, which had required women to start 10 minutes before men. The women had 10 minutes added to their times as a result of the protest, but the separate-start rule was scrapped.
By the late 1970s Kuscsik had suffered multiple injuries, gotten divorced, and been treated for breast cancer. She recorded her marathon PR, 2:50:22, in 1977 but by 1983 knew the qualifying standard for the U.S. Women's Olympic Marathon Trials, 2:51:16, was beyond her reach. "I ran New York that year for fun and was okay with that," she recalls. The all-consuming work of legitimizing the women's Olympic marathon was worth every minute, she says, because it succeeded. "I remember when the phone call came. I was at work, and afterward I put the phone down and thought, 'All that work, it's done!' It bound so many of us together."
Today at age 62, after knee surgery in 1992 and 1995, Kuscsik runs for health and fitness, often in New York's Central Park, across the street from her job as a patient representative at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. She says that while most of her co-workers know she runs, few are aware of her competitive background or her involvement on the administrative side (she continues to serve on multiple USATF committees and the board of directors of the New York Road Runners Club).
"I guess I like it when people don't know what I did," Kuscsik says, and tells one more story: "I was riding the subway with a young man from work, and he asked me if I was running the New York City Marathon. I said I hadn't decided. He said, 'Oh, but don't you have to apply way ahead of time?' I said that most people do, but I could enter it late. He asked how, and I said, 'Oh, I won it a few times.' "I didn't mind telling him, but it changed the interaction. Usually I talk about running only to give an example of hard work. I want people to know me as me. If they know what I did, they are interacting with something different."
Kathrine Switzer: Creating a No-Limits World
Storytelling comes naturally to Kathrine Switzer, too, and there's the one she's told so many times you'd think she'd be all told out. But somehow every recounting reveals something new. Like St. Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, Switzer's confrontation with Boston Marathon officials Jock Semple and Will Cloney during the 1967 race changed her forever.
In one instant, she became a grown woman, a true athlete, and a committed activist. "People say, 'You must have been going there to be a pioneer,'" Switzer says of her decision, as a 20-year-old Syracuse University co-ed who worked out with the men's track team, to sign up as "K. V. Switzer" for the hallowed Boston Marathon.
"I wasn't," she continues. "The marathon in those days was considered the most arduous thing in the world for anybody to do. I wanted to do what those great gods had done. It was sort of like touching a bit of immortality." Switzer and her coach, the late Arnie Briggs, had read the rules and found nothing prohibiting female participation in this near-sacred event. They signed up together, along with several friends and teammates, as the Syracuse Harriers.
Patriots' Day was cold, with sleet and rain. Briggs picked up the team's numbers, and everyone huddled in the car for warmth until the last possible moment. Wearing baggy sweats over a pretty, feminine outfit she'd designed, Switzer started the race unnoticed and ran four miles until the press bus and photographers' truck rumbled by. The journalists—and later the world—therefore had a ringside seat when a furious Semple approached Switzer and grabbed at her number, screaming at her to "Get the hell out of my race!" In the ensuing scuffle, Semple hit the pavement, and Briggs yelled at Switzer to "Run like hell!"
Switzer has said she started that race as a girl and finished as a woman. When I was 20, I brashly corrected anyone who labeled me with the "g" word. "You mean woman!" But I was certainly girl-like in many of my attitudes and perceptions. I've often wondered what I'd have done in Switzer's situation. Entering the Boston Marathon with my coach and a bunch of guys—yeah, that sounds like me. But when faced with a snarling Semple? What then? "You're in deep trouble," the enraged race director informed Switzer after he'd climbed back on the press bus and was zooming past her to the finish. It's quite likely that comment would have done me in, and I'd have responded by obeying the man and stepping off the course.
Instead, Switzer had one of those "Aha" moments that occur so rarely in life. She realized that the instant was pivotal—come what may, she had to finish the race.
The Four Mortal Sins
I've often thought those must have been among the most surreal 22 miles ever run, as Switzer trudged on, cold, wet, eventually alone, with no officials and a few spectators at the finish as she crossed in about 4:20. The next day she was expelled from the AAU for four reasons: entering the race using her initials, which the federation termed "fraudulent"; running a race with men; racing a distance greater than one and a half miles, the then-current women's cross-country standard; and running the Boston Marathon without a chaperone.
We have so few experiences in which we realize, in the moment, that we will never be the same again. The 1967 Boston Marathon was one such experience for Kathrine Switzer—and for the women's marathon. I've heard and read many attempts to downplay and even denigrate it. Her time was slow by the day's standards; Roberta Gibb ran almost an hour faster. It wasn't Switzer who challenged Semple but rather her boyfriend, a 235-pound hammer-thrower who body-blocked the old man to the pavement. Semple wasn't anti-woman—he was just enforcing the rules (a position the race director himself maintained until his death, by which time he and Switzer were good friends). But in my mind nothing can take away from the courage, vision, and yes, athleticism of Switzer's slog through 26.2 miles in the rain, a torn bib number pinned to her baggy sweats.
She ran right into history, of course, setting herself up to be a major player in the fight for women's full participation in the marathon. Switzer was hired by Avon in 1976 to set up a worldwide running program, and her work was vital to convincing the moribund International Olympic Committee to add a women's marathon to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It's hard to imagine the challenges that work entailed.
Eventually Switzer forfeited her own running career, a year after running a PR of 2:51:37 at Boston in 1975. "I remember so clearly sitting on my sofa, having been offered this opportunity with Avon," Switzer recalled. "I had a marriage, a stepson, a commute, and absolutely no life. My husband at the time said I would probably never run faster than 2:51—maybe 2:45 with a lot more work. And I was already doing 100 miles a week. So I said, 'Okay, you're right, that's it.' And I burst into tears."
As founder and director of the Avon International Running Circuit, Switzer spent much of the next eight years putting on races and tirelessly lobbying sports federations all over the world. "Thank God I had all the strength and energy from years of running," she says. "I never would have been able to do that job without that mental and physical fortitude."
It's easy these days to underestimate the deeply institutionalized resistance that Switzer and her colleagues were up against. "There were people even within the corporate structure who couldn't understand why we were doing women's running and wanted to see the program fail," Switzer recalls. "I was bound and determined to make it a huge success for the company, and it was." (Avon dropped its running program in 1985, then recommitted in 1997 with the launching of Avon Running Global Women's Circuit—directed by Switzer.)
The Lesson From Brazil
Switzer acknowledges the time was ripe for women to stand up and seize the moment, and she cites an example from Brazil in the late 1970s, where she'd traveled to put on an Avon 5K race. "The head of the Brazilian federation said to me, 'The women of our country will never run because Brazilian women are beautiful, and it's not feminine here.' But when I went down to the beaches and saw this body culture I realized that sure, they would run," Switzer remembers. "So we put on an event in Sao Paulo and invited him to come, and there were 8,000 women. You can't ignore 8,000 women running through the streets of Sao Paulo."
These days Switzer, 54, divides her prodigious energies among her work with Avon, writing projects (she's the author of Running and Walking for Women Over 40), and TV commentary for running and other sports. She's married to former 2:18 marathoner Roger Robinson, a professor of English in New Zealand, making for what may be the world's longest commuter marriage, though they're able to spend close to half the year together in New York. I consider Kathrine and Roger close friends of mine, though our respective schedules make for all-too-infrequent social get-togethers. I love Kathrine's feisty, independent thinking and continually fresh outlook. She's an astute student of the sport, who once upbraided a world-class runner for not reading the newsletter Running Stats. "I said, 'You mean you don't get every publication there is on running and devour them all?' I always did," she says.
Years ago, I interviewed Switzer for an article I was writing about women's progress in distance running. I asked her how she felt about the current state of the sport. After a long and thoughtful answer that included a prediction of the rise of African and Asian stars, she expressed dismay that so few women seemed to possess the interest in or capacity to carry the torch for equality for female runners. She wondered if they cared, or even knew, how recent and hard-won were the opportunities they enjoyed.
Recently I asked her whether she still thinks today's women runners take things for granted. "Sometimes," she replied, "but it doesn't bother me so much. You know, when I was 20, I didn't realize other struggles women had, such as the fight to hold jobs."
She returned to the topic a few minutes later. "What I think women today should realize is there's still plenty of pioneering territory out there. Just this year a Japanese runner named Tomoe Abe ran 100K at nearly six minutes per mile. Things like that open up a whole unknown realm."
Miki Gorman: The In-Betweener
When Michiko Suwa arrived in the United States in 1964, she entered a cultural milieu that severely limited women. Female role models still centered very much on Harriet Nelson, June Cleaver, and Donna Reed. This didn't much bother Suwa, coming from a tradition-bound society herself and happy simply to have arrived in a land of peace and prosperity. Born in occupied China to Japanese parents in 1935, she'd spent the war years in the Japanese countryside while American fire-bombing destroyed her family's Tokyo home. She came to Pennsylvania on a student visa to learn secretarial skills and work as a nanny for the family of an American army colonel. Despite her secretarial training, she stopped working to stay home when she married businessman Michael Gorman and moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s.
Running was far off the radar screen for the petite Gorman (5' 2" and 92 pounds in those days). Shy and reserved by nature, and lacking confidence in her English, Gorman isolated herself in her new home. Her husband urged her to develop interests and get out more. As she tells it, he finally "literally dragged me out the door" to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, after she expressed interest in building up her body. "I did not consider my body attractive," she explains. "Japan defines beautiful women as light skinned and plump. I was small and dark."
Gorman took a few exercise classes but was bored, so decided to try running. Like many beginning runners in those days, she started as a sprinter—indoors on a track that was seven laps to the mile. She felt an almost instantaneous connection to the sport and to other runners. Her first competitions were low-key meets, where she'd enter as many events as possible, often as the lone female. For the most part, her clubmates were warmly supportive, applauding her efforts no matter what her pace or placing.
"The club was like home to us, and the other runners were like family," Gorman recalls. Of course, a little bit of family strife was inevitable. "One time I was doing an indoor race and was the only girl, and the guy next to me at the start said, 'What are you doing here? Are you trying to compete with men?' I thought he was joking, but he was serious. He gave me such a dirty look. I was a little intimidated, but gradually it got me mad. I said to myself I was going to beat him, and eventually I did."
During another race, Gorman was running with a pack when another man, a top local runner and physician, told her she should be home in the kitchen. Again, she assumed the comment to be in jest, but after the race, he said it again. Gorman chose to ignore such incidents, which she found more annoying than anything else. At least they were few and far between and vastly outnumbered by the supportive words and actions of her husband, coaches, and other runners. People cared more about Gorman's obvious gifts as a runner than about her gender.
The longer the distance, the more she improved. For the first five years of her career, Gorman never raced outside the LAAC, sticking almost exclusively to the indoor track. Finally, in 1973, one of the club's swim coaches suggested she think about running the Boston Marathon. "I'd read about the Boston Marathon because Jacqueline Hansen won it that year," Gorman recalls. Hansen was coached by the legendary Hungarian Laszlo Tabori, who also oversaw Gorman's training, but the two women barely knew each other. "I said no because I looked up to Jacqueline Hansen so much. But we started to talk about it."
She Forgot to Stop
Gorman had limited road-racing experience, so Tabori and her other coaches, Ru Dosti and Dr. Myron Shapiro, decided to have her do 10 miles of a local marathon as a training run. "But at 10 miles the spectators were yelling that I was winning, so I couldn't drop out," Gorman recounts. "At 20 miles I felt I couldn't go another step, but I walked, then continued." She finished in 3:30. Team Gorman targeted the Culver City Marathon in December for her official debut. Hansen had won the year before in 3:15, before her 3:05:59 course-record-setting Boston run.
On December 2, 1973, Gorman ran 2:46:36 to win Culver City. The time was an American record by over two minutes; many considered it a world best as well, as Adrienne Beames's 2:46:30 in 1971 had never been verified.
Such a performance by a 38-year-old shocked the running world, but no one was more surprised than Gorman, who'd scarcely dared contemplate breaking three hours. "I was very, very amazed. I wasn't too tired at the end, though it was windy that day," she recalls.
Gorman went to Boston in 1974 as the overwhelming favorite and ran 2:47:11 to win by almost six minutes. Gorman's career flourished at an interesting juncture in women's marathoning history. She wasn't in the vanguard, yet she'd passed her peak by the time Grete Waitz, Joan Benoit, and their followers began to dramatically rewrite the record books. It's easy to overlook the achievements of women like Gorman, Hansen, Kim Merritt, and Gayle Barron, all of whom ran so brilliantly during the mid-1970s.
For her part, Gorman felt a deep gratitude toward her pioneering predecessors, whom she learned about only after her rise to stardom. "I admire the girl who ran before Kathrine Switzer—what was her name?" she says, referring to Gibb. "That made me cry, that she had to wait in the bushes at the start and didn't cross the finish line." Gorman, now 65, acknowledges it took fortitude to compete in a male-dominated sport, though she rarely trained alone and often ended up having male escorts in her races. Looking back, she sees herself breaking ground not so much for women as for all runners, by participating in a sport that was far out of the mainstream and offered few creature comforts. Her first running shoes, a pair of leather adidas, were so heavy and painful she had to cut away parts of the sole and upper. "And I wore terrycloth shorts and shirts that got so heavy when we sweated we'd have to stop and wring them out. We didn't have any guidance: no one knew about stretching or hydration or eating before races or weightlifting or anything. I envy runners now," she says. "Under different conditions I think we all could have run much faster."
Gorman ran 2:39:11 to win the first five-borough New York City Marathon in 1976, a race that included cobblestones, a flight of stairs, and long stretches of open grating over bridges.
Gorman admits she found it lonely at the top of women's marathoning, a situation that still dismays her. She says Hansen didn't speak to her for six months after Gorman's Culver City victory and that she and Merritt never exchanged more than a few words. "It was strange, but I understand that is part of sport for some people," she says, adding that she and Hansen now have a friendly relationship. And Gorman appreciated having had rivals to keep her motivated, something her predecessors lacked. "If you are chasing other women, or they are chasing you," she says, "then you do your best."
Grete Waitz: Creating Greener Pastures
Grete Waitz didn't do much chasing throughout most of her incredible marathoning career. She set world records in her first three outings: New York City in 1978, 1979, and 1980—and didn't lose at the distance until the 1984 Olympic Marathon (though she dropped out of New York in 1981 and Boston in 1982), where she took silver behind Joan Benoit.
Waitz entered marathoning when the sport was already firmly established for women, yet more than any other runner, male or female, she took the marathon to another level, both as a competitive event and celebrated "happening."
It's now the stuff of legend that Waitz entered New York in 1978 at the urging of her husband Jack and had never run more than 12 miles at a time in training. "But I'd often do 8 miles in the morning and 10 in the afternoon, all of it at six-minute pace or faster," she notes. "So I had a solid foundation." The comment, vintage Waitz, modestly downplays her incredible feat, while subtly reminding the listener that she was hardly a lightweight. What Waitz did for the marathon was to apply the relentless pursuit of perfection, honed over a decade at the top in track and cross-country, to a sport that had been lauding women primarily for showing up.
The late Fred Lebow brought Waitz to New York to add international flavor to the field and perhaps act as a rabbit, towing the field to a world record. He didn't particularly care whether she finished. Jack urged his wife simply to run with the lead women as long as she could. Through 16 miles she tucked in at a pace that felt to her like a training run. Entering Manhattan off the Queensboro Bridge, she assumed the race must be almost over and stepped on the gas, dropping the other women. She hit the wall several miles later, in the Bronx.
"I couldn't drop out," she recalls. "I had no idea where I was, I had no money, and I didn't feel comfortable speaking English. The fact that I was leading the race wasn't important to me; I was used to winning races. So I said, 'Well, I'll just make it to the finish line, and then I'm going to kill Jack.'"
She had no idea she'd set a world record (2:32:30) until the press began swarming all over her at the finish. And even then, it took a while to sink in, she was so exhausted and furious at her husband. "I said 'Never, ever will I do that again, let's go home to Norway,'" she recalls. "Until the spring of 1979 I was determined never to run another marathon."
Naturally, Lebow invited her back, and with Jack's patient prodding, she accepted. For in truth, her career as a world-class track athlete was winding down, and she was happy to find a new home. "I had more or less decided to retire from the track. I felt that I'd reached my potential. And the longest distance in the Olympics for women was 1,500 meters," she says.
Another World Record
For her 1979 New York appearance, Waitz recalls doing one 15-mile and one 18-mile training run. She ran 2:27:33, smashing her own world record. "That got me hooked," she admits.
She'd been invited to some shorter U.S. road races as a result of her previous Gotham win and found them fun and relaxing compared to track meets. "Of course a part of me didn't want to quit running competitively, so it all happened at a good time," she says.
Waitz didn't see her efforts as pioneering. Like most athletes, she was too caught up in the here-and-now to have that kind of objectivity. "I was just happy that there was this way of extending my career," she says. "Looking back, I can see myself as a pioneer."
Certainly she noticed opportunities opening up for women runners. "Suddenly there were marathons all over. For the first few years there were not a lot of women because they didn't have the opportunities. There were no marathons in Europe and very few road races."
Waitz was initially a painfully reluctant ambassador of the sport. She says it was the Norwegian in her. "In Norway we have this unwritten law: 'don't think you're anything special,'" she explains. "So I never liked the attention. I just wanted to let my running do the talking."
Over the years, and especially since her retirement from competition in 1990, Waitz has warmed up to the attention that comes naturally to an athlete of her stature. Today, she uses it to promote a fit, healthy lifestyle in programs and appearances around the globe.
I've admired—even idolized—Waitz as a runner and model of sportswomanship for almost a quarter century. Her quiet confidence, consistency, and grace under pressure have inspired me as a runner and human being. I've had a snapshot of her on my refrigerator for 16 years, taken during the 1984 New York City Marathon, when she destroyed the competition on a wiltingly hot day. She looks cool and completely in control. In another photo, in my scrapbook, I'm standing on a podium after a five-mile race in 1990, in which I placed second to Waitz. I'm looking up at her with an expression near to worship.
Over the years, I've developed a warm relationship with Waitz. I've tried to tone down my feelings of reverence (at least in her presence) and relate to her as a fellow human being who slips into her running bra one arm at a time, just as I do. But it's hard. Once she greeted me at the finish line of a race I'd run shortly after giving birth to my second child and praised me effusively for my effort. I thanked her and tried to make polite conversation, but a voice in my head made it almost impossible to form coherent sentences: Nine New York City Marathon wins. Four world records. A world championship. An Olympic silver medal. And we're talking about my running?
Waitz says she'll probably be remembered primarily for being the first woman to break 2:30, although she takes greater pride in her longevity in the marathon. "I had 10 years of very successful racing," she notes. An astute and thoughtful follower of the sport, she continues, "Today people don't last that long. I think that is because in the '80s there were not as many big opportunities as there are today. Today there are so many big marathons and a lot of prize money. It seems like people race a lot for a shorter period of time."
Perhaps more than any other runner, Waitz has flourished in her retirement. Her 1992 New York City Marathon run with Fred Lebow, then in remission from brain cancer, garnered more attention than any of her wins. Her life is full, but she is relaxed and comfortable with herself. "When I was younger and I lost a race it was like my whole world fell apart," she says. "But now I realize there are more important things in life. It's a nice change."
Joan Benoit Samuelson: Reaping Rewards, Plowing New Ground
"Nina and Kathrine opened the door, and I ran through it," Joan Benoit Samuelson once said in a panel discussion on women's running. True, the 1984 Olympic Marathon gold medalist, who still holds the American record of 2:21:21 (Chicago 1985), was granted opportunities from the start of her career that Kuscsik, Switzer, and even Waitz waited years to enjoy. Yet she took advantage of those opportunities in a way that has never been equaled by a woman distance runner, and may never be in the future.
Born in 1957, Benoit Samuelson struggled at times with gender bias during her childhood in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. The only girl in a family with three brothers, she grew up playing multiple sports and excelled at them all. "I was never discriminated against," she says, yet qualifies that a moment later. "When I was a girl I wanted to play Little League baseball with my brothers, but girls weren't allowed, so I couldn't. I didn't think that was fair."
She writes in her autobiography, Running Tide, of being told by classmates that she ran well "for a girl," and of hiding her "tomboy" tendencies in an attempt to conform to the values of her peers. Perhaps indirectly, this may have guided Benoit Samuelson toward running: "I didn't let my new attitude take me away from all sports, but the ones I played were quiet, individual ones that didn't call attention to me," she writes.
As a runner, the plucky teenager was aware that 1,500 meters was the longest Olympic distance open to women. "The so-called experts at the time said that women didn't have the capacity to run farther than that in international competition," she notes. "From a young age I knew that the longer I ran, the better I got. I remember feeling I had the ability to run more than a mile in a track meet."
But at the time, Benoit Samuelson was too consumed with running to the best of her ability to waste time or energy feeling disappointed or bitter. "I think if anything it made me persevere more," she reflects. "When the opportunities arose, I saw each one as something I could finally do, and I put more energy into it."
The Impact of Title IX
Title IX, the federal legislation mandating equal funding for male and female sports programs in institutions that receive government support, passed in 1972, when Benoit Samuelson was 15. The impact was profound, she recalls. "Doors just started opening up," she says. Benoit Samuelson's first love as a high school athlete was field hockey, a sport not available to girls in many areas before Title IX's passage.
How did this affect Joan Benoit Samuelson as a marathon runner? One of the characteristics her fans most love and admire is that she ran—and continues to run—with such heart. This trait was most visible during her most celebrated victory, the 1984 Olympic Marathon.
On a warm, muggy day she boldly took the lead at three miles and stole the race from Waitz, Kristiansen, Rosa Mota, and a host of others. If ever a woman ran a race without restraint or limitation, Benoit Samuelson was that woman, and the 1984 Olympic Marathon was that race.
Of her marathon career as a whole, Benoit Samuelson says, "I was lucky the opportunities were there, and I seized them because I was so passionate about the sport. I didn't mind putting in the work. I firmly believed no one was training harder than I was back then, and I believe that today."
She raced the same way, giving her all no matter what the circumstances. It's often said that when she was on, no other woman could touch her; indeed, in her most memorable victories—the 1984 Olympic Trials and Olympics, Boston in 1979 and 1983, Chicago in 1985—she blew the competition out of the water.
Her 1983 Boston victory is still my favorite (except for the 1984 Olympic Trials, which is in a category all its own) because the margins are just so ridiculous: winning by nearly seven minutes and setting a world best by almost three minutes. Yet Benoit Samuelson continued to push the pace right to the finish.
It is also significant to me that she had her share of stinker marathons: plenty in the high 2:30s, even at the height of her career, yet she never once dropped out. That's heart.
Benoit Samuelson set a standard to which women marathoners are still aspiring, especially in the United States. I believe her Olympic victory (along with that of Derartu Tulu in the 1992 Barcelona 10,000 meters) is the most significant Olympic moment in women's distance running in this century. It's easy to look back now and dismiss it as a situation of right time, right place. But I've never heard anyone do that. As anyone who saw that race, either live or televised, or has heard it recounted can attest, no one could have nailed down that race like Joanie. (It took until the 2000 Olympics for her Olympic time to be surpassed.)
Individualism or a Stream of Related Feats?
I ask myself whether Benoit Samuelson's victory in Los Angeles—and, by extension, her incredible career—should be seen more as an extraordinary individual accomplishment or as the fruit of the combined efforts of Kuscsik, Switzer, Gorman, Waitz, and dozens of others who had paved the way and who, along with Benoit Samuelson, continued to create and promote opportunities and raise standards in the women's marathon.
Our sport, perhaps more than any other, exemplifies the power of the individual. Yet no athlete succeeds purely due to her or his own effort. Certainly Benoit Samuelson was (and is) one in a million. Yet her career shows how the efforts of many can combine to create the once-in-a-lifetime moments that are the glory of our sport.
Today, of course, there are more opportunities than ever for women marathoners at the top. Perhaps too many, Benoit Samuelson opines. "I just don't think they're focusing on those few big events because there's so much money in the sport," she says. "The marathon being the marathon, you're never guaranteed a result. So from that point of view it makes sense to run more races and not put all your eggs in one basket the way we tended to 15 to 20 years ago."
It's unlikely that any woman who pioneered excellence in the marathon would begrudge today's stars—or any woman who commits to finishing a 26.2-mile footrace—their success or the benefits that come their way as a result. Switzer puts it best: "The rewards for women today are phenomenal. Women should feel no sense of limitation. Just go for it."