We learned last week that the apartment building Grete Waitz (nee Anderson) grew up in in Oslo, Norway had been fitted with a plaque recognizing the place as her girlhood home. The five time IAAF World Cross Country champion, nine time New York City Marathon winner, inaugural IAAF Women’s World Marathon Champion in 1983, and silver medalist the following year in the initial Women’s Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles was commemorated not only as a champion runner, but as a leader in the development of women’s sport.
In May 2011 I flew to Oslo for a service celebrating Grete following her passing the previous month at age 57. She had succumbed to a several years bout with cancer with the same grace she had displayed throughout her public career. Later, Grete’s husband Jack, a friend not just from the circuit but from our wintertime days in Gainesville, Florida throughout the 1990s, took me to the Keiseirlokka (Kaiser Field) neighborhood where Grete had grown up with her older brothers Jan and Arild.
Today, Kaiser Field is a quiet working class neighborhood, but in the post-war years when the Anderson’s lived there it was bustling with children, an idyllic place to grow up. Nearby stood Hasle Lutheran Church where Jack and Grete were married in 1975.
“She was the only girl in the family,” Jack explained. ”And her mother, Reidun, ran a tight ship. Grete was given all the tasks in the house. They made her take piano lessons, and they weren’t too enthusiastic about her running, because it wasn’t considered a girlish thing to do.”
A track star and school teacher before her second career began as a marathon champion in New York in 1978, Grete had to overcome the prevailing girls-staying-in-their-place headwinds that her own running, and that of others in her generation, helped turn around for future generations of girls everywhere.
Today, Grete’s greatest legacy lives on in her Aktiv Against Cancer Foundation, which works to ensure that physical activity will become an integral part of cancer treatment.
AKTIV Against Cancer was founded by Grete and Helle Aanesen in Norway in 2007. After donating more than $14M and helping to create 15 physical activity centers in cancer treatment facilities throughout Norway, AKTIV Against Cancer established its official 501(c)(3) presence in the United States in 2014.
Today, the work of incorporating physical activity into cancer treatments, and researching the effects continues throughout Norway, and at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City where an AKTIV Against Cancer pledge of $3.3 million helps fund exercise oncology research by Dr. Lee Jones, PhD. Work in exercise oncology has also been initiated in Ethiopia via Aktiv measures.
Grete’s influence was enormous during her all too brief life, due not just to her athletic excellence, but to her quiet dignity and innate elegance. She wasn’t one to call the spotlight to herself, in fact, she dodged it whenever possible. But it found its way to her all on its own. Nice to see the beam still glowing around her memory.