In 1966, University of Lynchburg men’s track coach Aubrey Moon invited a woman to join his team.
About a year later, that student broke a barrier for women around the world by officially entering and running the Boston Marathon — despite the event being closed to women.
On Monday, Kathrine Switzer will celebrate the 50 year anniversary of that momentous race by participating in the Boston Marathon again. This time, she will be joined by thousands of other women, including more than 100 women running for her nonprofit organization, 261 Fearless, which uses running to empower women.
“It is a joy to run with this amazing group of women and men from all over the world in the 121st Boston Marathon,” Switzer said in a press release earlier this year. “What was a dramatic incident 50 years ago became instead a defining moment for me and women runners. The result is nothing less than a global social revolution.”
Five decades ago, women were excluded from many sports and all major marathons due to an incorrect notion that women could not run such long distances without injury. In fact, until the early 1970s, the longest women’s running event in the Olympics was 800 meters — about half a mile.
“Not only was she a pioneer, but she was way way before her time,” said Jim Sprecher, current coach of the University of Lynchburg track and field teams. With decades of experience coaching college runners, he is well aware of the way Switzer’s legacy has shaped the experience of today’s athletes.
Switzer, who started studying at Lynchburg but transferred to Syracuse University to study journalism, registered for the Boston race under the name “K.V. Switzer” so she could prove to her Syracuse coach that she could complete the race. She ended up proving it to many more people than just her coach. She drew worldwide attention when a race official chased her and tried to rip her race bib away because the race was for men only. After her boyfriend and fellow runner knocked the official down, Switzer was even more determined to finish.
“I realized that if I quit this race, nobody would believe deserved to be there, or that they could do the distance,” Switzer said in a recent interview with ESPN’s SportsCenter.
Five years later, the Boston Marathon officially allowed women to compete, and today there are more women runners in the United States than men. Coach Sprecher noted that women have led a running boom over the past decade, and some of his best student-athletes are women who benefit from Switzer’s legacy.
“Not only do we have more women participating on our team, but our women’s program has really taken big steps toward a national level,” Sprecher said.
For example, senior soccer player Natalie Deacon ’17 joined the track team this year, and already she has won All-American honors and has ranked in the top 10 nationally for the 800 meter and 1,500 meter. Sophomores Samantha Schreiber and Morgan Alvis are among the best in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference and are on the verge of national competition breakthroughs, Sprecher said.
He said all of his student-athletes, men and women, can find inspiration in Switzer’s determination to compete and to finish. “In a situation such as a marathon, you’re not only trying to persevere, you’re also trying to beat competitors,” he said. “It really tests a person’s physical, mental, and emotional limits.”
When role models like Switzer break down barriers, other athletes can follow in their footsteps. “That’s what she gave to the running movement.”