The world has lost a true pioneer today in the loss of 9-time NYC Champion Marathoner, Grete Waitz, 57, to cancer. The native Norwegian did much to promote the movement for recognition and validation in long distance running for women worldwide.
After winning numerous awards and honors world-wide for her achievements, Waitz was invited by Fred Lebow, founder of the NYC Marathon, to the 1978 race to act as a “rabbit,” a pace-setter for established marathoners. She ended up winning the race, which was her first marathon, with a world record time of 2 hours, 32 minutes and 30 seconds. She then went on to win the NYC race eight more times, setting three world records, something that has never been done by any other marathoner, male or female. She subsequently became the first woman to run a marathon in less than two and a half hours.
In 1978, women’s distance running was still a novelty. Only 938 out of 8,937 entrants in the 1978 New York marathon were women. In 2010, that number increased exponentially to 16,253 out of 45,350 entrants. Even so, the women’s marathon was not included in the Olympics until the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, where Waitz finished second to Joan Benoit Samuelson, winning the silver medal for Norway.
“The women's running revolution, the biggest sea change in our sport in 30 years, began in Norway, where a young track star, Grete Waitz, broke boundaries as well as records,” Amby Burfoot, 1968 Boston Marathon winner, wrote in Runner’s World in 2004 (via NPR). “In 1972, at the Munich Olympics, she ran the 1,500 meters, the first time women were allowed to participate in the event.”
In a 2008 New York Road Runners interview, Waitz said, “We’ve come a long way in a very short time. When I got a little older, I wasn’t encouraged to do sports — it wasn’t what girls should be doing. Even in the media, women didn’t get the same attention. We had to be twice as good. I had to set world records to get noticed.”
Rob de Castella, a world champion marathoner from Australia who trained with Waitz, said, "She was the first lady of the marathon. She was such a wonderful lady, such a wonderful ambassador for women's marathon running back when it was just starting to be recognized as a serious event.”
Grete proved through hard work and perseverance that it was possible that women could run longer distances. When many naysayers felt that women didn’t belong in long distance running, she proved them all wrong. She had always set high goals for herself, and in doing so she broke long-standing barriers against women in sports.
"It was Grete who proved that it was possible for women to compete in the longer distances," said Svein Arne Hansen, president of the Norwegian Athletics Federation.
"Grete is in my eyes one of the greatest Norwegian athletes of all time," Norwegian Athletics Federation president Svein Arne Hansen said. "Not only through her performances in the sport, but also as a role model for women in sports."
In 2008, Waitz was honored with the prestigious Order of St. olav by the king of Norway, for being a role model to female athletes. She also received the St. Olav Medal in 1981 and the St. Hallvard’s Medal in 1989. Waitz also received the International Olympic Committee’s Women and Sport Award for a European athlete in 2010.
Grete’s husband, Jack Waitz, has confirmed that she died Tuesday in Oslo. He has said that during her treatment she never gave in to self pity, quoting her as saying, ‘“if you give up, you lose.”’
Waitz is survived by her husband Jack, and her brothers Jan and Arild. She was buried with government honor at state expense, only the sixth woman in Norwegian history to be awarded this privilege.