Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Farewell, Grete

One of the greatest female athletes of all time and a legend in the sport of running passed away earlier today. Norwegian runner Grete Waitz died of cancer at age 57. She had been battling cancer for the past six years.

Waitz's feat of nine New York City Marathon victories may never be equaled.  Her nine wins in New York were in the span of 11 years. This would be the equivalent of a baseball team winning 9 World Series or an American football team winning the Super Bowl 9 times in 11 years. Even though I hadn't started running when Waitz was competing, I watched her performances in New York on TV and she amazed me every time. In the 1984 Olympics it was a tough call between cheering for Waitz in the marathon or US runner Joan Benoit. I ended up cheering for both of them. Waitz ended up with a silver medal behind Benoit.

After retiring from elite-level competition, Waitz remained a role model and inspiration for female runners. She ran in shorter races and promoted running and fitness. She also gave generously to charities such as CARE and the Special Olympics. In 2007 she founded a cancer foundation and a percentage of the profits from her special line of Adidas running gear went to it.

What set Waitz apart from other top athletes was her humility and sportsmanship. In 1992 she ran the NYC Marathon with its founder and director Fred Lebow. Lebow had been diagnosed with brain cancer and '92 was the last time that he ran "his" marathon. Back in 1978 Lebow had invited Waitz to compete in the NYC Marathon. She had never run a marathon before and ended up breaking the women's world marathon record. Waitz and Lebow became friends after her first NYC Marathon. When she and Lebow  crossed the finish line together in 5 hours and 32 minutes, it was one of the most memorable and touching moments in sports. Running with Lebow gave Waitz a real appreciation of what an average marathoner experiences.

The next year Waitz again showed that she was a class act. She promised Zoe Koplowitz, a woman with multiple sclerosis and diabetes, that she would wait for her at the finish line no matter how long it took for Koplowitz to finish.  Koplowitz  had to walk with the aid of two canes and finished the race in 24 hours. When Koplowitz crossed the finish line, Waitz was waiting for her as promised. But there was one problem. The organizers were cleaning up the finish area and were out of finishers' medals. When Waitz learned that there were no more medals, she went to her hotel room, got her husband's medal, and gave it to Koplowitz.  I can't imagine 99% of top athletes today committing such a generous gesture.

Grete Waitz may be gone. But as long as there are girls who dream of running marathons, her legacy will live on. May she rest in peace.

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