Today, she is an author, athlete, commentator, race organizer and fierce advocate for women and girls around the world. During her visit to Bryn Mawr, Switzer spoke to Middle and Upper School students, dropped in on Lower School physical education classes, met with Bryn Mawr cross country runners and sat down for an interview with the Quill.
Speaking to students, Switzer recounted parts of her childhood that led up to the 1967 Boston race. She said she always wanted to be a cheerleader, but her father told her, “You don’t want to do that, because cheerleaders cheer for other people. You should get out and run.” So, she did. Switzer committed herself to running one mile every day to prepare for her high school field hockey team, which gave her a new level of confidence. “You have talent and capability,” she told the audience. “The only way you know is to try.”
Years later, as a 20-year-old Syracuse University student, Switzer found herself training with the men’s cross country team, because Syracuse didn’t have any women’s sports teams. After she became aware of her strength and endurance compared to the male athletes, and with support from the team’s coach Arnie Briggs, Switzer set her sights on running the Boston Marathon. She was told that women were too weak and fragile to run that distance, but she took that as a challenge. “The challenge is everything because it gives you a goal, and the goal gives you a focus,” Switzer said.
She registered for the race using only her initials “K.V. Switzer,” and was given the bib number 261, which she still uses today for her global non-profit 261 Fearless to show young women and girls that any act of bravery can make a difference. Her determination to complete the marathon even after a race official tried to physically remove her from the course, caught the world’s attention.
Switzer completed the race in four hours and twenty minutes and became an icon, but she told the students that she gained something even more valuable that day. “I entered the race a girl and completed it a woman by making the choice to stick with it. My message to you is that all your life you will have moments where you have to make a tough decision. Make the right one, the hard one. What you do with what happens to you is what matters.”
In 2017, she celebrated the 50th anniversary of her first Boston Marathon by completing the race again, proudly wearing her number 261. She has dedicated her career to creating opportunities for women in running around the world, including advocating for the women’s marathon to become an official Olympic event in 1984.
“Look at that we’ve accomplished in the last 50 years,” Switzer told Bryn Mawr students. “What I want you to think about are what changes will be happening in the next 50 years in your life and what part will you have in making them happen?”