K.V. Switzer

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

It was forty years ago this week that a woman named Kathrine Switzer put on a baggy pair of sweat pants, an oversized sweat shirt, tied her long hair up under a cap and officially entered herself in the male-only Boston Marathon as K.V. Switzer. 1967. The heart of the free-wheeling Bob Dylan. make-love-not-war, women's liberation '60's and yet women were considered too fragile to run the grueling marathon. Empirical tests over the last four decades have proven women to be not only capable of endurance events but even superior to men in certain aspects of pain tolerance and oxygen management. In my sport of marathon swimming, women have historically been champions, starting with Gertrude Ederle who crossed the English Channel in 1926 faster than any man had done so before her. When I used to stand on a beach with 100 men, facing a 50-mile stretch of ocean, I was confident my chances of reaching the other shore first were pretty darn good. Male climbing teams for many years shunned women, believing that if potentially fatal conditions swept in, women wouldn't be able to carry their share of the gear or they wouldn't be able to move fast enough to safety or worse, they would have to be carried themselves by men who were desperately trying to save their own lives. Today, women have climbed the Earth's tallest peaks and are readily welcomed onto the teams of elite male expeditions. Women sail solo around the world. They've won the 1,100-mile Iditarod dog sled race so many times that the slogan now reads, "Alaska: Where Men are Men and Women Win the Iditarod!"

But back in 1967, the men putting on running races were convinced that distance races were dangerous for women. Myth still bled over from way back, the London Olympics, 1948. Women were allowed for the first time at those Games to run the 800 meters. The top three pushed so hard that they all stumbled in exhaustion to the finish line and fainted on the track. That was it. Anything above 400 meters was taboo for women. It was feared they might damage their reproductive organs. Twenty years after the London 800 meters, Kathrine Switzer was running mile after mile along the Charles River in Boston, easily keeping up with her men friends for hours at a time. When the famous Boston Marathon came around the spring of '67 and she was denied entry, she entered as K.V. instead of Kathrine and arrived at the starting line in her gender disguise. Just two miles into the 26.2 mile race, an official noticed Kathrine's hair tumbling down from her cap and he rushed into the pack, grabbed her sweat shirt and tried to stop her. Kathrine's boyfriend and another runner jumped to the rescue and body blocked the official off the course. K.V. Switzer not only became the first woman to ever officially run Boston that day, but she subsequently dedicated herself to opening the marathon to women around the world. Her first battle was inclusion of the marathon for women in the Olympic Games. The 1948 image was still strong in many of the older Olympic officials' imaginations so it was indeed a battle but, at last, the women's Olympic marathon debuted in Los Angeles in 1984.

Kathrine Switzer has since created road races in 27 countries. In Ethiopia and Kenya, marathon champions use their notoriety to better the lot of women in their tribal cultures. When Ethiopian Fatuma Roba won the marathon gold medal at the Atlanta Games, and then won the Boston Marathon the next year, she became a special hero to all African women. In countries where women struggle to gain respect in all aspects of society--in the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil--women completing the marathon are symbolic of their competence and courage in other walks of life.

We remember K.V. Switzer this week every year, and women around the world salute Kathrine as a daring pioneer of conviction.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad