In the 1980s, I was deep in the throes of track & field fever. The 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles had only solidified my burgeoning love of this new (to me, at least) sport.
I was in high school at the time and went back to school in the Fall still hyped up from the just-completed Olympics. In an English class we had to give speeches about people who inspired us.
I chose to wax poetic about my hero: Evelyn Ashford. I was a sprinter in high school and no one seemed cooler to me than Ashford (well, maybe Paul Molitor or Rick Springfield, but those are stories for another day.)
I’m sure I went on and on ad nauseum about this hero of mine. The teacher was nodding knowingly. Everyone else looked a little glazed over, but I soldiered on. It wasn’t until after class I realized that, except for the teacher, I don’t think anyone knew who I was talking about.
And I’m not sure I backed up the story enough at the beginning of my speech so people would know. That suspicion was confirmed when a classmate came up to me afterwards, laughing and kindly asked, “WHO IS Ashley Ashford?”
I had missed my mark, indeed.
For the record, THIS is Evelyn Ashford. Five-time Olympian (if you count the U.S.-boycotted 1980 Games), Olympic 100 meter champion, former 100 meter World Record Holder (5 years) and all around cool woman. My hero.
A little bit further back in U.S. Track & Field history is the late, great Wilma Rudolph. Although I admired her, I’m REALLY glad my speech wasn’t about her. Pre-internet, ESPN and Biography Channel, my classmates definitely wouldn’t have heard of her.
This all brings me to the point that we can immerse ourselves in something so deeply that we no longer remember what it’s like NOT to know something.
Today, as I was reading this article in The New York Times, “Redefining Women’s Work,” the writer, Anita Gates, did a nice job previewing a PBS program that was debuting tonight. [Makers: Women Who Make America.] She provided highlights of the key points of the special including naming women who would be featured prominently.
However, I was struck by the oddity of one particular passage. Gates is describing this program, covering decades of the women’s movement, and this is one part that stood out for her:
“The shocker is the 1967 Boston Marathon, then an all-male event. Its director reacts to a woman who had entered (using her first initial in registering) by running into the street and trying to remove her physically himself. Seriously. There are pictures.”
This mention was so disjointed relative to the tone of the rest of the article. As though KATHRINE SWITZER was just “a woman” who decided to jump into a little race and was then never heard from again. And as though no one had ever heard this story before. AND there are PICTURES?
“A woman?” Seriously? This article was written more than 45 years after this “woman” broke down a huge barrier (and was almost tackled to the ground in attempting to do so.)
Gates mentioned Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Nora Ephron & Billie Jean King by name, because each of them, of course, went on to contribute greatly to the women’s movment in their respective ways.
It just struck me as so odd that an article, written almost 46 years after an event considered historic, not just in running, and not even just within women’s sports, but rather in the history of the women’s movement generally, would refer to “a woman.”
After her historic debut at the 1967 Boston Marathon, Switzer continues to be a great leader as a runner, a broadcaster, an author, a motivational speaker and, perhaps most importantly, a role model and champion of women runners. Certainly earning her the “right” to have her name among other female leaders of her era.
For the record, Switzer has run 39 marathons, including the 1974 New York City Marathon, which she won. The following year, her 2:51 Boston Marathon was ranked sixth in the world and third in the USA in women’s marathon. She is still running marathons today.
And, for those of you for whom she is not a household name, this is K.V. Switzer, as she registered for her marathon debut, aka Kathrine Switzer: