Oslo, Norway – Perhaps it was a good thing Grete wasn’t still with us, because last night in Bislett Stadium where the great Norwegian champion first came to national then international prominence, she was eulogized to over 1500 people by the likes of the Norwegian Prime Minister, the mayor of Oslo, the head of the Norwegian Athletics Federation, fellow champions, and the president of the New York Road Runners. Knowing Grete, the private person who shunned personal recognition, the public display of it all would have been pure torture.
Her husband Jack joked to me earlier that “Grete will come back and haunt me” if he made the commemoration too elaborate. But both Grete and Jack came to the realization long ago that she wasn’t just a private citizen of Norway alone. The one-time school teacher from Oslo had long since become a citizen of the world, and the world needed to say good-bye and thank you.
Grete died on April 19th at age 57, and was laid to rest, as per her request, at a small private ceremony on the 28th. Last night’s memorial service was more for the legions who loved and respected her, and for them there was no holding back.
New York Champion
“Our Grete” was how NYRR president Mary Wittenberg so eloquently began her eulogy, a moving tribute to the nine-time ING New York City Marathon and five-time New York Mini 10K champion, the queen of New York, if ever there was one. “Somehow there was enough Grete for all of us to share.”
“Our quiet hero” Mary called her, a woman who charmed the brash citizenery of New York, took on and bested the top runners of her era, then carried the responsibility of cancer with the same characteristic grace she displayed as an athlete. She even began a foundation, Active Against Cancer, to help others fight the disease.
Besides Mary, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Oslo Mayor Fabian Stang, Norwegian Athletics Federation head Svein Arne Hansen and others, Grete’s fellow marathon champions Joan Samuelson and Rosa Mota of Portugal were also were on hand to talk about their friend and rival.
“I grew up with three brothers,” Joanie told the crowd, displaying a clear emotion. “Grete was the big sister I never had.”
London-based Norwegian singer Lisa Stokke thrilled the audience with a special rendition of “New York,New York”, inserting “queen of the streets” and “these Adidas shoes” to personalize Grete’s attachment to the Big Apple.
“I am so grateful for all who are here today,” Jack told the crowd in his native Norwegian to close the memorial. “This is going to live with me the rest of my life.”
Throughout their lives together Jack and Grete became an inseparable team, Jack as coach, training partner, head of logistics, best friend and guardian. Friends and colleagues always knew of Jack’s importance in Grete’s achievements, but last night in recognition of his massive contribution to Norwegian sport Jack was presented a a diploma by Norwegian Sport President Borre Rognlien.
Joining Jack on stage were Grete’s two brothers Jan and Arild, who traded off as Grete’s training partners with Jack through the glory years. It took all three of them, Jack in the mornings, then Jan or Arild in the afternoons, to keep up with Grete.
“She was one of sport’s greatest,” said Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. “The modest girl from Keyserløkka in Oslo was a legend who broke barriers and paved the way for others. A true role model to the very end.”
His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon of Norway was also in attendance. Afterwards there was a private reception where the U.S. Ambassador to Norway, Barry B. White, his wife Eleanor, and their son Adam greeted guests.
Outside Bislett Stadium people gathered to lay flowers and take pictures at the statue of Grete in full flight. Today’s young female runners who enter the arena in Norway and beyond have an unlimited opportunity, in part, due to the life and the times of the woman we simply knew as Grete. And that legacy will never grow old, nor will it ever pass.