It was a moment that is credited with breaking the gender barrier for women in distance running. It was also a moment that changed Kathrine Switzer’s life.
At the 1967 Boston Marathon, the only thing a 20-year-old Switzer wanted was to prove to her coach she could finish the race. But, four miles in, race official Jock Semple tried to physically remove her from the course, and it set in motion a seminal event in women’s athletics.
Switzer’s boyfriend Tom Miller, a former all-American football player at Cornell, put a block on Semple that sent him flying to the side of the road while Switzer broke free. Pictures of the encounter made headlines around the world. Meanwhile, an emboldened Switzer went on to become the Boston Marathon’s first official female finisher.
Her courage in challenging the status quo of the race, and of distance running beliefs became a starting point for female athletes who had previously been told they were too fragile to run a marathon. Even now, 261, Switzer’s bib number from that day, has become a rallying point.
Switzer and her husband, Roger Robinson, an athlete, scholar and journalist, will be on hand for Saturday’s 21st annual Baton Rouge Beach Marathon. They will also be the guest speakers at the Beach Marathon Expo beginning at 5:15 Friday at the Marriott Hotel.
The Baton Rouge Beach Marathon begins at 7 a.m. Saturday at Wompold Memorial Park on Stanford Avenue. Runners for marathon and half marathon races will traverse a 13.1 mile course.
“Its interesting how that event has become more popular than ever, and that’s probably because of the internet,” said Switzer, who added that Semple picked the wrong place and time to treat her as an interloper.
“For the official who was attacking me, his timing was exquisite. What a bozo to do it right in front of the press truck.”
The pictures of Semple accosting Switzer helped put a face on the women’s athletics movement that included the birth of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) in 1971.
After that race, Switzer helped lead the campaign to get women official status in distance races. In 1972, there were eight female entrants when the Boston Marathon finally changed its stance on women and marathons, a number that grew to more than 16,000 this year.
“I became an activist, but I didn’t want to be an aggressive activist,” Switzer said. “The women’s movement was in its early stages, and the men in that race and the men who trained me were wonderful. They never discouraged me.”
Switzer went on to win the 1974 New York City Marathon. She eventually got Avon Cosmetics on board to help establish the first international women’s running circuit in 1978. The 1980 Avon Marathon held in London attracted runners from 27 countries, and helped influence the International Olympic Committee when it added the women’s marathon competition for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
It showed how far women had come since the 1960s when female runners were limited to sprints and middle distance events. It was a time when the popular belief was that the female body was unable to endure the rigors of distance running.
For Switzer, running in the Boston Marathon was a dream that became a reality after signing her entry card “KV Switzer” instead of writing out her full name.
“I had to show my coach in practice that I could do it,” Switzer said.” He didn’t believe a woman could do it so if I showed him (in practice) he promised to take me.
Boston was the reward.”
Switzer knew she would get noticed, but said she didn’t go to the race to make a point or create a scene.
“After the attack from the official, that’s when I knew I had to finish the race. I said to myself, ‘I have to finish no matter what because if I don’t, no one will believe women can do it.’ ”
Today, Switzer has helped start the 261 Marathon in Mallorca, Spain, and is proud of helping expand women’s running globally.
“Women running is one of the biggest social revolutions ever because it may be the first time many women have had the chance to become empowered,” Switzer said.
It is a revolution that will show off its fruits Saturday morning at the Baton Rouge Beach Marathon.