Waitz, Grete (1953—)

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Waitz, Grete (1953—)

Norwegian marathon runner who played a central role in changing the image of women's long-distance running . Born Grete Andersen on October 1, 1953, in Oslo, Norway; daughter of Reidun and John Andersen; married Jack Waitz, in 1975.

At 16, won the Norwegian Junior title in the 400 and 800 meters; set a European Junior record in the 1,500 meters with a time of 4 min. 17 secs. (1971); competed in her first Olympics (1972) but failed to medal; set a record in the 3,000 meters (1975); won the inaugural World Cup in 3,000 meters (1977), placed fifth in the 1,500 meters in the European championships, and won five world cross-country titles in Norway; finished first in the New York marathon (1978), taking two minutes off the world record; won 9 out of 13 New York marathons (1978–91); took five minutes off her 1978 record, becoming the first woman to run a marathon in under two and a half hours (1979); won the London Marathon and the first World Track and Field championship marathon in Helsinki (1983); was an Olympic silver medalist in Los Angeles (1984); selected Sportswoman of the Year by Women's Sports magazine; voted the best female distance runner of the past 25 years by Runner's World (1991); formed the Grete Waitz Foundation to helped teenage female runners get started.

Grete Waitz was born Grete Andersen in 1953 in Oslo, Norway, the daughter of John and Reidun Andersen . In her youth, she played handball and participated in gymnastics and track. At age 12, when she found an old pair of spikes lying about, she started running back and forth behind the apartment house where she lived with her parents and two older brothers. Waitz already knew she could run fast. In the cops and robbers games she played with other children, no one wanted to be the cop who had to chase robber Grete. Not even the boys could catch her.

Young Grete quickly realized she needed a more substantial training program than running on the lawn could provide, so she joined the Vidar Sports Club of which she is still a member. Waitz ran with the older boys of the club who consented to take her along on their six-mile workouts, during which she sustained their 6.30-mile pace with difficulty but determination. She was soon identified as a long-distance runner.

At 16, Waitz became the Norwegian Junior champion in the 400 and 800 meters; later that year, she made her first national senior team, which meant an invitation to compete in Canada. Her success convinced her parents that she was serious about the pursuit of running. They bought her an athletic bag and a pair of running shoes. More important, they agreed to let her discontinue the piano lessons which she had resented throughout her childhood.

At 17, she experienced the highs and lows indigenous to the career of anyone who stands out in the crowd. She had set Norwegian records in the 800 and 1,500 meters and thereby raised everyone's expectations for her performance in the upcoming European championships in Helsinki. Unprepared for the psychological demands of an international race, she ran poorly and afterwards retired to the bathroom where she cried for two hours before emerging with a internal promise to "show them" in the Rome championships in 1974.

But the death of her boyfriend in 1972 almost put an end to Grete's career; she lost her desire to run, to eat, to live. Only the steady efforts of her brothers and their friends in the Vidar club, among them Jack Waitz, whom she would marry in 1975, got her back on the track. She did not place in the Munich Olympics that summer, but the Games brought back her desire to participate and to compete once again. Her mind made up, she began a winning streak in Norway which was to last 12 years.

Winning a bronze medal in the 1,500 meters in the 1974 European championships in Rome earned her the Athlete of the Year title in Norway; the following year, she was ranked No. 1 in the world for the 1,500 and 3,000 meters. The Montreal Olympics of 1976, however, proved a disappointment. Waitz made it to the semifinals—a race sensational enough to make The Guinness Book of World Records—but missed the finals by two tenths of a second. The disappointment of her nation weighed so heavily on her she decided to run in future without the support of the Norwegian Federation scholarship, responsible only to herself. In the 1978 European championships in Prague, she took "only the bronze" and a Norwegian paper ran a headline "Sorry Norway" above a picture of her pointing thumbs down.

At this point, Waitz considered retiring from running. For years, she had kept up a grueling training schedule, at one time running as much as 125 miles a week. She was tired, disappointed, and ready to hang up her Adidas. Then her husband talked her into running a marathon. "I never really wanted to run the marathon," she said.

When Waitz lined up for the New York City Marathon in 1978, she was an insecure schoolteacher from Norway. "My longest run, even in training had been only 12 miles. But my husband urged me to try, just to see how I would do." The world record she set that day was as much a surprise to her as it was to the watching crowd. It opened up a new realm of invitations to travel and compete, astonishing to someone who had always set her goals for winning and improving rather than racing against a clock and a record. Her four marathon world records brought her glory, success and financial security as well as a career in health and fitness after retirement from running.

From 1978 to 1991, Waitz won 9 out of 13 New York marathons. In 1979, she shaved five minutes off her 1978 record, becoming the first woman to run a marathon in under two and a half hours. She won the London Marathon and the first World Track and Field championship marathon in Helsinki in 1983. In the first Olympic marathon in Los Angeles in 1984, Grete was dealing with back spasms and finished second to Joan Benoit Samuelson . In 1991, Waitz was voted the best female distance runner of the past 25 years by Runner's World.

In addition to earning prize money, Waitz has made product endorsements and run clinics, carefully selected activities which have proved lucrative enough to let her buy a house on a hill overlooking the Oslo Fjord. The Grete Waitz Foundation supports girls in track and field, and the Grete Waitz Run for Women offers encouragement to all women runners. Charities such as Save the Children and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation have also benefited from Grete Waitz's success.


Condon, Robert J. Great Women Athletes of the 20th Century. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991.

Waitz, Grete, and Gloria Averbuch. World Class. NY: Warner, 1986.

Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx, 1992.

Inga Wiehl , a native of Denmark, teaches at Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, Washington