A young man and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry alumnus (Class of 1967) killed in Vietnam more than 50 years ago is being honored and remembered this week in a lasting and meaningful way. A high school senior…
Kathrine Switzer ’68, G’72 Commencement Address
Kathrine Switzer ’68, G’72 delivers the keynote address at Commencement ceremonies Sunday at the dome. The following is a video and transcript of her inspiring message to the grads.
Thank you Chancellor Syverud, esteemed colleagues and most of all—to you, the graduating students who have invited me in this very dynamic year to be your Commencement speaker.
I love how that video ends on AWAKENINGS—that’s us today, an Awakening, a Beginning, a Commencement– NOT an ending, and so for the next few minutes, I want to tell you some stories of awakenings. Of how sometimes the flash moments, least likely people, and coincidences that happen in your own life can change the course of it… and how if you can recognize them, you can be ready for them and act on them for your own life, but more importantly, perhaps for community and even world change.
When I ran that Boston Marathon 51 years ago, I was a junior in the Newhouse School. It was an era not unlike one we are going through now: of protest, racial division, sexual contentiousness, of questioning social injustice, all thrown in with its own 60’s brand of terrorism, the fear of a nuclear holocaust.
I was not unaware of these things, but I was just another naive student who wanted to stay out of trouble, go running and get through my studies. I somehow thought these things were none of MY business and would somehow magically resolve themselves.
There were no women’s intercollegiate sports at SU in those pre-Title IX days, so I trained unofficially with the men’s cross country team and I found them amazingly welcoming and supportive in these early years of the feminist movement. Particularly helpful was their volunteer manager, a rather ancient guy–he was 50! — named Arnie Briggs, to whose memory this speech is dedicated.
Arnie was the least likely source of inspiration to a 19 year old girl: he was not a university man, he was a blue-collar postal worker who delivered the mail on Comstock Avenue as fast as he could so he could run in the afternoon with the boys at Syracuse and train for his annual beloved Boston Marathon. Now that he was old and hobbled, he was running with The Girl, who was slow, but Arnie didn’t mind; he wanted to share his infectious love of running with everybody. When I told him I wanted to run the Boston Marathon he didn’t believe any woman could do it and we argued. The longest event then in the Olympics for women was 800 meters—two laps of the track—and people seriously believed women who did more were flirting with danger. As a test, Arnie and I ran 31miles together in practice—5 miles more than the 26-mile marathon distance—and Arnie fainted at the end of the run. On awakening, he proclaimed that ‘women have hidden potential in endurance and stamina!’
We’d discovered a whole new universe and it was he who insisted I officially register for the race, saying how proud of me he was. I thought all men were as wonderful as Arnie and this team; I had no idea how lucky I was. I had a lot of good teachers at Syracuse University, but I know now that Arnie Briggs The Mailman was the most influential professor of all. Never sell anyone short in your life; pay attention and pay respect—sometimes it is the simple wisdom of a kind heart that impacts you most.
It wasn’t until the Boston Marathon race official attacked me midstride- simply because I was a woman – and tried to rip off my running bib–# 261–that I was jolted into reality. I was scared witless, and deeply humiliated, but knew I had to finish the marathon or no one would believe women had the capability and deserved inclusion. Making that tough decision changed everything—both public perception and my whole way of thinking.
I could have walked off the course in fear and anger, but instead plodded on, and finally, about 22 miles into the race, after mentally murdering the race official in every way a person could be murdered, I realized the official was just a product of his time. It wasn’t even his fault. The truth is that you can’t run 26 miles and stay angry, that’s for sure. But that anger changed from destructive to productive in a real Awakening Moment: Other women weren’t in the race, or didn’t undertake difficult or adventurous things because they were afraid of all the old myths of limitation. I realized I wasn’t special, that talent is everywhere, it only needs an opportunity, and women had none to disprove the old myths and restrictions. I knew then that a goal in my life would be to create those opportunities. It wasn’t just about running per se; instead it was about changing women’s lives.
But finishing was paramount, and finish I did, crossing the line as a much wiser person. In life you will find that Destiny, more often than not, is just finishing the job.
The journalists at the finish line were irritated that I’d finished. I was, in their eyes, violating a male domain. The officials disqualified me and expelled me from the athletic federation for among other things, running with men…which was wonderfully ironic as all the men in the race were supportive of me. So you see, running here is just a metaphor for our lives—when we strive and accomplish something difficult together, we respect and support each other. It was only the officials, the media and some spectators—several of whom, sadly, were women–who were mean to me.
In the end, as ugly as the moment was at the time, it both radicalized and inspired me. I was lucky. I showed up, and I was given the opportunity.
Often it’s the adversity in your life that gives you the greatest ideas. Sometimes the worst things in your life become the best. But for sure, all of us see social injustice everyday— in small ways like seeing a kid get put down rather than positively reinforced, or in big ways like blatant racial discrimination– and every time you walk away from it, pretend it’s not your job, you take another drop of bitterness in your life. You cannot solve all injustices, but you can undertake to solve some of them. There are plenty of ways to pick up a negative, turn it around, and from it create a positive force for good. It can even enhance your career, or become a career itself.
But trust me, all that was not on my mind a year later: a day in May 50 years ago, as I sat (sort of) where you are sitting now, and where, I can assure you, the furthest thing from my imagination was that someday I would be on this stage speaking to you. I was just like many of you are right now, sleep-deprived from just squeaking by in all my courses, preoccupied with clearing out my room, hitting the road, and starting a new job in three days. Plus, my prospective in-laws were in the audience meeting my parents for the first time and I was exhausted trying to be the perfect bride- to -be and not this upstart athlete they’d seen in the New York Times. As I walked across the stage to receive my diploma, all I could think was: “I can’t be getting a university degree! I don’t know anything!”
I was right about the Boston Marathon but I could not have been more wrong about my degree. I knew a LOT! Maybe most of all I knew I could show up and work hard or I wouldn’t be walking across this stage, because school wasn’t easy for me. Maybe it wasn’t for you, either. And I knew something else—Syracuse University taught me about excellence. There was a standard of work and behavior that was expected, and obtaining that degree from Syracuse University was a mark of excellence. It put me head and shoulders above others in a competitive marketplace. This was especially significant for a young woman in what was still a man’s world, and I was exceedingly grateful to parents who sacrificed a lot to pay for an education I desperately wanted. All these years later, I am—and I hope you are too– overwhelmed with gratitude, because most people in the world, regardless of how hard they work or how deserving they may be, will never have the opportunity you have Right Now. Please don’t waste it, be thankful and when you can, realize one of the obligations of excellence is to pass on what you know to the talent that is out there but has not had this chance.
There is a funny thing about both knowledge and running—the more you learn, the more you don’t know, and the faster you get lets you know how much more training you really need if you’re serious. It’s quite shocking, sometimes daunting, and yet, and YET, it’s fascinating. You are probably the worst judges of your own capability, and the only way to push beyond your self-imposed limits is to take the next step. You’ll surprise yourself.
As I improved as a runner, my career also improved. Not only in my regular PR job during the day, but in the creative ideas of how to construct a whole legitimate sport of long distance running for women. Every night after work and after a run, and before heading to night class—I was working on my master’s degree as well– I would write down my ideas for making it happen.
As the 1972 Olympic Games approached, I knew I had to be there in person to see how the politics worked to move women’s running forward. Sometimes, showing up is not enough, sometimes you need to be BOLD to get what you want, but boldness usually comes with a reality check.
With my new Syracuse Master’s degree under my arm, I confidently marched into the news room of the NY Daily News (you can’t do this nowadays…), reminded them they did not have a reporter on the spot in Munich, and if they would give me press credentials and pay for what they printed of my work, I’d take care of everything else and cover track and field for them. I had zero money and took out a 3-year loan, paying the first year’s installments with the last year of the loan money. I’m sure every parent in the audience is now groaning in agony hearing this risky story, but it paid off.
It paid off in both enlightenment and in horror. I was only 24, and now I was working alongside some of the greatest sports reporters in the most advanced sports communications network I’d ever seen. That is, until one morning, when we were blindsided by the news that Palestinian terrorists were holding Israeli athletes hostage in the Olympic Village. Later in the day, 11 Israeli team members were murdered.
I was shattered, and seriously out of my depth as a young journalist working alongside the hardened war reporters who suddenly surfaced, but I wasn’t out of my depth as a runner. The Olympics are sacred to athletes, and yet we mattered least in this most dreadful moment.
I took several months of vagabonding and running all over Europe to try to put it in perspective. The truth is, when you show up, and when you are bold, things happen. Nothing happens when you stay at home and sit on your hands. There will be constant reality checks –some terrifying and some gratifying. For better or worse, when you are in the action, you learn a lot.
For me, in search of a way to do what I could do to advance women, one avenue was clear: the Olympics were political, and the main drivers of major sports events are not the athletes, but the commercial sponsors.
Actually, something very good can come of this, I thought. Yes, I know I am often a cock-eyed optimist, but I came home to New York, put Newhouse jet fuel into my typewriter and wrote a knock-out business proposal to Avon Cosmetics, showing them how together we could create a global circuit of women’s races that were world-class, but welcoming, glamorous, and made for TV. At the same time, we could fulfill the IOC’s –the International Olympic Committee’s– demands for inclusion in the Olympics, which meant we had to show active participation in 24 countries and 3 continents.
Avon loved it, and hired me to do it –Oh My God; I had created a career in something new called sports marketing! —and in only two years—in 1980– we had participation from 27 countries and 5 continents and closed downtown London streets for the first time in history for a sports event with a women’s only international marathon. The glacial-paced IOC made a warp-speed decision to vote the women’s marathon into the Olympic Games for 1984. ABC-TV needed a commentator for the new women’s marathon event in Los Angeles; I showed up, they chose me, and now I had a second career in sports broadcasting, a blazer, a microphone and Al Michaels at my side.
When the first woman marathoner—Joan Benoit– came into the Olympic Coliseum, it wasn’t just the 90,000 people roaring approval that changed world thinking about women’s capability, it was the 2.2 billion people who had seen the moment on television. That’s because everyone on the planet knows that 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers is a very long way to run, and here were women, running it, fast and heroically.
It was stunning. The marathon is the toughest event in the Olympic Games for men and for women. So to me, that moment was as important as giving women the right to vote. The vote 100 years ago was our social and intellectual acceptance of equality; this was our physical acceptance.
At the same time, we began finding that women excel at endurance and stamina, while men excel at speed and power. The creation of sports events utilizing women’s unique capabilities will be a dynamic career path of the future. And some of you here, especially those of you from the new Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, are poised to create it. Envision the future in your own field—engineering, biochemistry, law—and think of ways you can bring about positive change and advancement.
Already in the 51 years since that Boston Marathon, women’s running has created nothing less than a social revolution. 58% of all the runners in the USA and Canada are now women. That’s because running is easy, cheap and accessible, and because it is a transformational experience. The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other gives people, women especially, a sense of accomplishment and confidence. It gives a woman the courage to do what she thinks she cannot: leave a bad relationship, find a better job, or get an education.
But we have a long way to go internationally. Zahra Arabzada was born in Afghanistan and has come to the United States to study. She is a runner, and everyday marvels at the privilege of being able to run outside every day. When, someday, Zahra is able to return to Afghanistan, she will press for the time when women can run in daylight, and not in groups at 4AM when no one can see them. This puts a whole new spin on showing up. Think about what running will do for the Mid-East.
I am telling you all of this because you don’t start things necessarily to change the world, but things often happen when you take responsibility for something along the way. When you change thinking about half of the population of the world, it’s significant. It’s not just about women; it’s about all of us. We’re actually in this together.
In 1967, I was the only woman in the Boston Marathon wearing a running bib. Who would have imagined that last April 2017, as I stood on the starting line for my 50th anniversary run, 12,000 women stood there with me wearing official running bibs? Who would have imagined that both men and women would run and become fearless because like me, someone told them that they were not good enough, not welcome, or the wrong gender, race or religion?
Who would have imagined that the old bib number the official tried to rip off of me in 1967—261—would now become a global foundation called 261 Fearless that empowers women, many whom live fearfully, to run and take control of their lives? Who could imagine the gratitude I feel knowing these women and men are going to take the legacy forward to future generations, giving them confidence, strength and power? And even I would have only dreamed to have the health and determined gratitude to run the Boston Marathon again at 70, reminding all of us that longevity, good health, and optimism are increased by an active lifestyle.
Lastly, please imagine this as a final metaphor– two figures running though the dark interminable snow of Syracuse just loving the run and showing up every day. And how their metaphorical run may give us yet another model for the future: When people run—or work, strive and create– together, the world changes for the better.
In this renewed era of sexual contentiousness, of racial and gender divisiveness, social maliciousness and terrorism, our simple activity of running shines like a beacon and can give us an example that all of us, runners or not, can use in all our different fields and in our very different lives. Here it is:
A few days before last November’s New York City Marathon, a terrorist killed a group of runners and bikers by driving his truck into them. Suddenly the media were asking me: ‘Aren’t you afraid to run the marathon next week? And I answered with this: On Sunday, I’m going to be running with 50,000 people. The man running on my left is a different race from me and from a different culture. On my right is a woman I’ve never met whose orientation I don’t know. Neither of them speaks English, but we share a common language called running. AND I WOULD TRUST THEM WITH MY LIFE. We don’t care about gender; it doesn’t matter! — we are motivating each other as runners. And we will hug each other at the finish, sweaty and stinky, and it has nothing to do with sex or violence. The crime rate is at its lowest on marathon day as 50,000 people bring joy and hope to millions.
Running gives us an example of inclusiveness, diversity, respect and peace that we need now more than ever. If it works for running, it will work for everything else.
Think about it. The artist, the poet, the engineer, the nurse or lawyer: people who strive, create and work together respect each other. You can build it in many different versions that have nothing to do with running. You have your SU degree. You have the skills. You have been trained in excellence. You value respect. You have the opportunity. And you have a world waiting for you. Be Fearless.