On April 19, 1967, Kathrine Switzer, a 20-year-old journalism student, made history by becoming the first woman to officially participate in the Boston Marathon, at a time when men believed that women did not have the ability to run any distance longer than 2.4 km, and when men outright objected to her participation. Nowadays, she’s an icon of female empowerment and an example of perseverance and effort.
During the course of the race, Switzer was photographed by the press as a curiosity and even chased to prevent her from continuing in the race and, ultimately, disqualified when she crossed the finish line. But she still persevered, refusing to give up, and her experience convinced her that there’s nothing that cannot be achieved in life.
Preparing for the marathon
Switzer began running when she was only 12 years old, because she wanted to join the field hockey team. Her father supported and encouraged her to run 1.6 km. per day and, even though she was unable to join the hockey team, she turned from being a shy and insecure girl, into an empowered woman.
At age 20 she met Arnie Briggs, a coach at the University of Syracuse, and told him that she wanted to run the Boston Marathon. He replied: “If you can prove to me that you can run the marathon distance, I will be the first person to take you there”.
Even though other women had already run the marathon, none had done so officially. Switzer reflects: “Women themselves did not understand that they had the ability. They had all these instilled old-fashioned fears of certain young ladies: that their legs would get big, that they would grow a big moustache, that their uterus would fall-out.”
During her training, Switzer once ran for 49 kms. and Briggs kept his word. He told her: “The rules don’t mention anything about gender, and the form doesn’t mention anything about gender either”. Switzer went ahead and paid the US$2 registration fee and officially signed-up for the marathon, using her initials. The organizers assumed she was a man and gave her number 261, a number that has since been retired in her honour and can no longer be used.
The strength of perseverance
In her memoirs, Kathrine Switzer revealed that, on the day of the marathon, she did not attempt to conceal the fact that she was a woman. She wore lipstick, earrings, a t-shirt, and shorts, but she ultimately decided to also wear a sweater and wide trousers over her outfit, because it was snowing and it was extremely cold.
This was her first race and she had no problems during the first 3 kilometers. However, after the press spotted her, they started following her and taking photographs. “They would shout: there’s a girl in the race! She’s wearing a number”, recalled Switzer.
“Suddenly, behind me, I hear the sound of leather shoes, clearly not jogging shoes. And I see this man, with a furious look on his face. It was frightening. He grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me down, while trying to remove the number from my chest. ‘Get out of my race and give me those numbers!’, he yelled. And even though I was very scared, my boyfriend took hold of him and removed him from the race.”
This incident was captured in an iconic photograph, which turned Switzer into a figure to follow and launched her career as a defender of equality for women in sports.
“At some point around the kilometer 33 mark, I was no longer enraged and I told my coach “ I must finish this race, even if I have to do so crawling on my hands and feet, because if I don’t, no one will believe that women are capable of doing this, that women are entitled to be here.”
After finishing the marathon, clocking in at 4 hours and 20 minutes, Switzer narrates that she felt she had a life plan, a goal, and a purpose to fulfil. “I felt accomplished also because I ran my first marathon under the most strenuous circumstances and after that, nothing would be as tough.”
An example for the new generations
Unfortunately, after crossing the finish line, Switzer was disqualified and expelled from the Amateur Athletic Union. However, the support she received far exceeded the scandal, and she quickly became a sports celebrity and an icon for women’s rights.
Switzer used her influence to campaign for women to be admitted into the Boston Marathon. To that end, she organized over 400 races in 27 countries and used the statistics from these events to lobby before the International Olympic Committee until Women’s Marathon was recognized as an event in the games, in 1984.
Additionally, she also became an author and a television pundit for Olympic, world, and national sporting events, before returning to running marathons at the age of 64.
Kathrine Switzer has always declared that “if we can empower women, we can do anything”, adding that “sports consists in motivating and respecting others, in harmony”. With this in mind, we invite you to follow her paradigmatic example and dare to make a difference in the world of sports.