Kathrine Switzer was honored as an Ashoka ChangemakeHER, Changemakers's inaugural celebration of the world's most influentual and inspiring women. Find her fellow honorees' voices here.
Pictured above: Kathrine Switzer is accosted by a judge who tried to eject her from the normally all-male Boston Marathon in 1967, when male teammates bounced the official out of the race instead and she went on to finish. April 19, 1967 in Hopkinton, Mass. (AP PHOTO)
by Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon and to win the New York City Marathon. She led the drive to get the women’s marathon into the Olympics, and is a TV commentator and author of Marathon Woman. She will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame on Oct.1, 2011.
It is an interesting fact that you cannot pursue a physical activity for a long time and stay angry. When the adrenaline and aggression burn themselves off, the endorphins and reasonable-- even creative—thoughts take over.
So it was with me 44 years ago, this April 18, when I was attacked in the Boston Marathon by a race official who was so angry that I was a female in his male-only race that he tried physically to eject me. I was rescued by my male teammates who bounced the official out of the race instead, and I went on to finish.
I said that I would finish the race on my hands and knees if I had to, to prove to this official and the world that women were physically capable of running the marathon distance, and I deserved a place in this race. I was angry with the official for 20 miles of hard running, and then a light went on.
It wasn’t his fault that he was a curmudgeon; he was a product of his time. The fault was that women did not have opportunities in sports so they could enter events fearlessly and experience the joy of effort and accomplishment, and disprove the myths that prevented them from starting in the first place. I knew if they could only have those opportunities, they would feel the same sense of confidence and empowerment that I felt.
I vowed then and there to create those opportunities. It was especially important to open the Olympic Games marathon event to women, so that women themselves would aspire to this high level; then the world would recognize women’s superb capabilities.
At 26.2 miles (42.2 km) long, many considered the marathon impossibly difficult for women to achieve. To disprove the “impossible” myth, I created a series of women’s races in 27 countries for a million women.
This global outpouring led the drive to get the marathon for women into the Olympic Games in 1984. When the event was televised, the world woke up, as everyone everywhere knows that 26.2 miles (42.2 km) is a long distance. They saw women running it, and pow! they realized that women can do anything.
When women themselves saw other women running, and then experienced a sense of triumph from their own efforts, the social change began happening. One mile a day often led to two, then ten.
Suddenly women realized they were overcoming their own barriers and feeling good, strong, and pro-active. Feeling it then physically transformed into knowing they need not be held back elsewhere--in education, career, social status, or restrictive convention.
In countries as disparate as Japan and Kenya, the woman runner has changed women’s status in society. It is thrilling to see a once downtrodden Kenyan woman now revered in her village as an athlete, one who also builds schools and wells with her prize money.
The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other has always been magical. But never more than how it has changed the lives of women. With more women runners in the USA now than men, expect a global trend that produces heath, as well as equality, for generations.
That first difficult run at Boston changed my life, and consequently the lives of millions around the world. I wasn’t to know that then, but never underestimate the strength of your own belief.