Grete Waitz is dead. And the world is poorer for the loss.
Sadly, this International sportswoman who amazed so many and charmed so many more with her quiet stature and tremendous ability, has not only moved on, but done so far enough away from the public light as to be forgotten. And she shouldn’t be.
Grete, a quiet Norwegian school teacher was also a world class cross country runner competing against steroid induced East Germans and Russians back in the 1970’s, and even then occasionally coming out on top. She was quiet and tough and talented as hell. In 1978, Fred Lebow, chief organizer, marketer and visionary for the New York Road Runners, invited her to come to the states to run his marathon. Grete and her husband accepted, thinking, great, we’ll get a free trip to
You see, the dominos tend to fall sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly and only years later can you start to see clearly which pieces hit the other pieces to make them fall. The New York City Marathon was televised nationally, live, starting in 1981, the only year in 10 that she didn’t win. (I know it’s hard to imagine isn’t it? An American marathon actually on television, live) Grete was now running all over the world, and a prime example, this quiet brilliant woman who proved that women could not only run distance but race it and race it better than the men, someone that could be pointed to to convince the hidebound Olympic movement to add the marathon for women in 1984. Her running moved the women into the same battle for legitimacy as professional athletes as the men were fighting.
I’d like to think beyond just her athletic achievements, but everything is wrapped up together. Her achievements on the roads created a world wide force to help women gain equality through sport, which in turn created more places for her to excel and win, increasing her ability to achieve social change. She won a world championship in 1983, had a back injury that she didn’t discuss beforehand, limiting her to the silver in 1984. She won New York City Marathon 9 times, a number that will certainly never be equaled much less surpassed, because women’s marathoning is simply too competitive these days, and yes, it harkens back to Grete helping the rest of the world see that women could kick ass in the race. Races became professional, money came into it, and the rise of Africans seeing their chance to run their way to unheard of riches and are all dominos that have long since fallen after that fateful 1978 marathon.
Grete made headlines jogging the New York City Marathon with Fred Lebow many years later, when Fred was suffering from the brain tumor that would take his life. Many people cite that memory as their most powerful of Grete, but that’s likely only because it was the last time that she was in the national spotlight. They have forgotten the Grete of her prime: long blond hair behind her as she hammered her opponents in the distance, eyes half closed in effort, her slightly stiff arm action not betraying a bit of her determination to win. She was magnificent in her prime, every bit as exciting to watch run as the best men in the world, which, back then, you couldn’t have said about any other female marathoner in the world.
She was a pioneer. She had incredible talent. And she had class.
She was Grete. And you’ll never get another like her.