How Kathrine Switzer helped change the culture in women's sports

SC Featured: Legacy of 261 (6:53)

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon. Her bib number, 261, is now a source of inspiration for women around the world. (6:53)

The motivation to run comes in many forms. It can be in the instinct to run away or flee from danger; it can be the urge to run toward something -- a lifelong goal or the ubiquitous finish line; or it could be to simply push yourself to a limit you didn't know you had.

For Kathrine Switzer, it was all of the above when she found herself running from a race official whose physical assault underscored a male-dominated athletic arena into which she had entered -- the 1967 Boston Marathon.

"Sports up to that time had been a masculine domain about speed and power and strength," Switzer recently told ESPN in an "SC Featured" interview from her New Zealand home. "Certainly, if [a woman] participated in sports long enough, she's going to grow hair, her legs are going to get all muscular and maybe her uterus was going to fall out."

Switzer didn't set out to be a trailblazer, but through her perseverance, she helped changed the culture of sports forever.

The game is on the field

As a young girl growing up in Vienna, Virginia, Switzer decided she wanted to play high school field hockey. Her father, a retired Army colonel, suggested she run a mile each day to improve her conditioning.

He was also the one who dissuaded her from trying out for cheerleading.

"Cheerleaders cheer for other people," he said. "You want people to cheer for you. The game is on the field. Life is to participate, not to spectate."

For Switzer, this was a whole new concept.

"Let me paint you a picture about the status quo for women when I was growing up," Switzer said. "We have a box here, and a woman's job is to mind the house, her husband, take care of the kids and be feminine and domestic."

After playing for James Madison and George C. Marshall High Schools, Switzer enrolled at Lynchburg College, where she participated in field hockey, basketball and lacrosse, upping her daily workout to three miles. Two years later in 1966, she transferred to Syracuse University so she could pursue another passion, journalism.

There was no women's cross country team, but Switzer was invited to practice with the men's team and soon found an ally in volunteer coach -- and the school's mailman -- 50-year-old Arnie Briggs. One of his favorite subjects was the Boston Marathon, which he had run 15 times.

Switzer, who by now was up to 10 miles in practice sessions, wanted to run it, too.

"Without missing a beat," Switzer recalled, "my beloved Arnie Briggs said, 'A woman can't run the Boston Marathon. Women are too weak and too fragile for 26.2 miles. No dame ever ran no marathon.'"

Switzer firmly told him he wouldn't have a training partner if he didn't believe a woman could run that far.

"You have to prove it to me," Briggs said. "If you'd show me in practice, I'd be the first person to take you to Boston."

Switzer showed him.

After training hard for two-and-a-half months through Syracuse's brutal winter, the pair ran 26 miles during one session. Switzer, coming down the homestretch, couldn't believe how good she felt and suggested they run five more miles, in case they mismeasured the course.

Briggs, a U.S. Army paratrooper in World War II who broke his back in a jump over Germany, was weaving at the end, but when they crossed the imaginary 31-mile finish line, Switzer threw her arms around him.

"We did it," Switzer said. "We're going to Boston."

And then, Briggs passed out.

A chaotic start

The next day, Switzer and Briggs went over the Boston Marathon race rule book in her dorm, and they couldn't find any gender-specific language that prohibited women from running.

Switzer paid the $2 entry fee, submitted her Amateur Athletic Union card and signed the form K.V. Switzer. To this day, she says she wasn't trying to avoid detection. Her first name, Kathrine, isn't spelled the conventional way and always seemed to get misspelled. The other factor: her fascination with the bylines of J.D. Salinger, e e cummings and T.S. Eliot.

Briggs led a small group from Syracuse that included Switzer, Switzer's then-boyfriend and future first husband Tom Miller and another student runner, John Leonard. They drove through sleet and snow to Boston the night before and woke the day of the race, April 19, 1967, to more of the same. They put on every piece of clothing they brought with them.

Switzer, wearing gray sweats and her hoodie up, pulled on black plastic garbage bags to help stay warm. It was a frenzied scene at the starting line in Hopkinton, as officials with clipboards attempted to check the numbers of the 741 registered runners. The only woman with a bib number pulled up the garbage bag to reveal her number, 261, and was pushed along to the starting line.

"See?" Briggs said. "I told you there wasn't going to be any problem."

Switzer, 50 years later, laughs.

"But, of course," she said, "what happened was the officials were so busy and running late. Snow is coming down. It was chaos. If it had been a sunny day, I might not be doing this interview."

The race began and the group settled into an easy pace. Switzer likened that first euphoric mile to a pilgrim making the journey to Mecca. When she threw off the trash bags and dropped the hoodie, revealing her shoulder-length chestnut hair, the runners around her starting smiling and nodding.

"People were very happy to see a woman out there on the course," Leonard said.

The press truck passed them on the way to the front of the race.

"A couple of people were yelling, 'Hey, it's a broad,' or something along those lines," Leonard said. "There's cameras snapping pictures continuously for about 30 seconds or so, and they moved on. Then slightly behind that, suddenly there was a sort of uproar."

"Sports up to that time had been a masculine domain ... Certainly, if [a woman] participated in sports long enough, she's going to grow hair, her legs are going to get all muscular and maybe her uterus was going to fall out." Kathrine Switzer on sports participation in the 1960s

Two men had jumped off at the two-mile mark -- John "Jock" Semple and his co-race director, Will Cloney. Semple was a fixture in the Boston running community. When the truck passed Switzer's group, a reporter chided the 63-year-old Scotsman, saying, 'Hey, Jock, you've got a broad on your hands today.'"

Semple yelled, "Stop the bus, boys! Stop the bus!"

While women had previously run the race, this was the first time one had obtained an official number. This incensed both race directors.

What happened next was famously captured by Boston Herald staff photographer and Pulitzer Prize winner Harry Trask, who, while smoking a cigar and wearing a beret, was the only one on the media truck who jumped off to get a better angle.

Before cable television and the internet and social media, he captured the pivotal moment.

"They always say a photograph tells a thousand words," Switzer said. "This photo of me running and being attacked by a race official and him getting bounced by my boyfriend flashed around the world. I think it was a big turning point in women's sports."

In the image, Cloney tried to block Switzer's path, but she eluded him.

Semple, who managed to avoid Briggs (wearing bib No. 490), also tried to stop Switzer.

"I heard leather shoes on the pavement," Switzer said. "And I turned, and he grabbed me and screamed at me, 'Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers,' and he threw me back and went to pull off my bib numbers."

Briggs yelled at Semple, "I trained her. Leave her alone. She's all right."

Miller (No. 390), a 235-pound hammer thrower who was training to compete at the 1968 Summer Olympics, crashed into Semple's left shoulder.

"I was just so humiliated and so frightened because it happened out of the blue," Switzer said. "I was really blindsided by it and could hear, when all this was going on, the cameras clicking. And I'm thinking, 'This is like a very, very bad dream.'

"[Semple] was thinking I was a girl and shouldn't be there and I was making a mockery of his race. I knew he thought I was a clown, but I was serious. And then a wonderful thing happened -- I got really angry."

And they kept running.

After a disjointed half-mile or so, Switzer pulled the group back together.

"One of the most amazing things about Kathrine Switzer is that she is always a lady and composed," Leonard said. "She was encouraging the rest of us to shake it off, forget it and get back to business."

Switzer said she fleetingly thought about quitting the race. But she turned to Briggs and said, "Arnie, I'm going to finish this race on my hands and my knees if I have to. Nobody is going to believe women deserve to be here if I don't finish this race."

They slowed their pace to conserve energy and eventually crossed the line after 4 hours, 20 minutes.

Reporters were waiting.

"What are you trying to prove?"

"Are you a suffragette?"

"You're never going to run another marathon -- this is a one-off deal. You're showing off, right?"

Switzer told them she would be back to run again.

"I often say I started the Boston Marathon as a girl and finished as a grown woman," she said.

Impact beyond Boston

Switzer ran Boston eight times, recording her fastest time (2 hours, 51 minutes) in 1975. She ran the New York City Marathon four times, winning it in 1974, on a 100-degree day, in 3 hours, 7 minutes, an astounding 27 minutes faster than the next woman.

It was Switzer who pioneered the Avon Series of women's races, which culminated in the inaugural Olympic women's marathon event at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Switzer, who was the force behind that addition, was in the booth as an analyst with ABC's Al Michaels when Joan Benoit Samuelson entered the stadium tunnel near the finish.

"I thought, this is a moment that's going to change everything for women," Switzer said. "Because it's like the women's movement in general -- we come from the darkness, and now we're going to go into this bright arena of light."

Switzer is still running, championing her nonprofit foundation 261 Fearless, a nod to her old Boston bib number. It's a global support community empowering women to take control of their lives through the freedom of running. There are already noncompetitive running chapters in 10 countries around the globe.

"I'm sorry to say most women in the world still live in a fearful situation," Switzer said. "And she may be in the Middle East or in North Africa or she may be your next-door neighbor. They're still telling women that they're not welcome, the wrong color or not talented enough, and then they go run and become fearless."

Roughly 120 women who are part of the foundation will join Switzer on Monday, when she returns to run the Boston Marathon. This year's field will be comprised of 30,000 runners, 13,702 (46 percent) of them women.

Switzer, who spends half her time in New Zealand with husband Roger Robinson, a British-born runner and author, has been in great demand for the past several months as the golden anniversary of her run approaches.

"All these years later," Switzer said. "I have to thank Jock Semple for attacking me in the Boston Marathon. Because he created a photograph. One of the most galvanizing photographs in the women's rights movement, because it moved from running into the social context.

"It was really amazing that, that negative has become one of the most positive things in my life. He not only angered me that day and frightened me, but he inspired me."