Waves of Opportunity


Boston Marathon Photo credit: Boston Herald

Back in April, I was working out at the gym when a story on ESPN caught my attention. As I watched, infamous images slid across the screen.  They were black and white photographs of a female runner with a man attacking her from behind, vigorously attempting to rip the bib number from her sweatshirt.  ESPN was featuring Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to ever officially enter and finish the Boston Marathon, back in 1967. 

In those days, distance running was a man’s sport.  Switzer was a student at Syracuse University, and was allowed to practice, but not compete, with the men’s track team. The coach, Arnie Briggs, was her training partner.  During their runs, he would amuse her with stories of his adventures running in Boston’s most famous race.  During one such session, Kathrine hinted jokingly that she wanted to run it with him.  He flatly told her he didn’t think a woman had the strength to complete such a feat of endurance.  But, if she could prove him wrong, he would personally take her to the Boston Marathon and run it with her.

They checked the rules and found nothing prohibiting a woman from running.  As she had always signed everything with her initials, K.V. Switzer, she registered for the marathon the same way.  As a result, no one ever took note that the registrant was a woman…

…until a few miles into the race.  A media truck drove by Switzer’s group.  The cameramen noticed there was a girl running, and created quite a ruckus as they shot pictures.  The race director, Jock Semple, jumped off the press truck and ran after her screaming to get the hell out of his race, while grasping for her race bib. Kathrine’s boyfriend managed to push Jock away from her, so she could continue running. Although she felt uneasy, she persisted. Kathrine was able to mentally regroup and finished the race in 4 hours and 20 minutes.  

Early the next morning, her story was published in Boston newspapers and Switzer became an instant celebrity. As a result of her decision to finish the race despite her fears, she was able to create numerous opportunities for women’s running and changed the face of women’s sports.

Here is a short list of Switzer’s accomplishments since then:

  • *Boston Marathon officially opens the race to women in 1972
  • *Winner NYC Marathon
  • *Creator of the Avon International Running Circuit
  • *Successfully lobbied to make Women’s Marathon an official Olympic event
  • *Started AtAtlanta Sports Promotions, Inc.
  • *Covered over 200 national and international events with ABC Wide World of Sports
  • *Won 1997 Emmy Award for her commentary on the Los Angeles Marathon
  • *Internationally recognized author and speaker
  • *Recipient of numerous awards for efforts in advancing opportunities for women athletes

So, here’s my point…

Switzer could have simply been satisfied with her 15 minutes of glory and led a quiet life regaling stories of a daring event.  After all, she did not initially run the Boston Marathon to prove anything to anyone other than herself and her coach.  She didn’t enter with the intent of drawing attention to herself as a way to advance the cause of women. In her own words, she just liked to run… “the longer the better”.

She recognized an opportunity to not only improve her life and career, but also to ensure that other girls had the chance to cultivate their own abilities as athletes. She capitalized on a single moment and concentrated wholeheartedly on her goal, making her an agent of cultural change in the lives of women around the world.

Switzer did something that the majority of people do not do.  When she saw a wave of opportunity present itself, she took full advantage.  She did not resist it.  She did not let it pass her by.  She determined to ride that wave as far as it would take her. And when that wave broke along the shoreline, she got back on her board and paddled out to look for the next set.   

When I first compared Kathrine’s life journey to riding a wave, I referenced instructions for catching a wave while surfing.  Not surprisingly, there are certain correlations between surfing, and setting goals while looking for opportunities to reach them.  I’ll just note some highlights, taken from http://www.wikihow.com/Surf.  (Italics below indicate my brilliant analogous commentary.)

  • Keep looking forward as you paddle. When you turn around, you lose power.  (Work towards your goal and don’t turn back, or you will lose ground.)
  • Be quick. You want to catch the wave before it breaks, so you have time to get up on the board.  (Sometimes you have to make decisions before you know every last detail.)
  • Be patient. If you miss a wave, just paddle back out and wait for the next likely candidate. (Don’t let frustration and setbacks keep you on the beach.  There will be other opportunities.)
  • After standing on the surfboard, ride the wave, keep your knees bent, arms loose, and your eyes looking in the direction you are going. (Stay flexible, but focused.)

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to assume you aren’t an idiot and can make additional in-depth philosophical connections between the analogy of riding a wave and taking advantaging of opportunities.  Basically, if you aren’t looking for the waves, you are either going to get bored or bowled over.  Always make sure that you are aware of your surroundings, taking advantage of opportunities, and don’t forget to have a little fun while you’re at it.

End Note:  On April 17, 2017, the Boston Marathon celebrated 50 years since Switzer ran the race, and honored her by introducing her before the race and having her fire the starting gun for the women’s elite runners.  Her bib number #261 is only the second Boston Marathon number to ever be retired.

You can read a detailed account of the events leading up to, and including the race itself at  http://kathrineswitzer.com/about-kathrine/1967-boston-marathon-the-real-story/

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