GRETE’S PLACE

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.

Grete Waitz girlhood apartment, second story on left

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.

helle aanesen & grete waitz Aktiv against cancer co-founders

Helle Aanesen & Grete Waitz Aktiv Against Cancer co-founders

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.

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BLAZING FITNESS

Shellie Pfohl

Houston, Texas – Shellie Pfohl, executive director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition addressed the attendees of the Running USA Ashworth Youth Awards Luncheon yesterday.  A dynamic speaker, Ms. Pfohl gave an impassioned presentation illustrating the vital importance of getting and keeping America’s youth active.  She acknowlegded the need for assistance in returning physical education to the nation’s schools.  Her message was clear and concise as she preached to what was essentially the choir.  Later, I met Ms. Pfohl in the lobby of the hotel, and asked about the flight of societal hurdles facing today’s children which I’d measured in a previous post WHAT DIRECTION RUNNING USA?

I concluded, “The President’s Council has been around for nearly 60 years, through 11 presidents and spent billions of dollars.  So how would you assess the overall impact of your agency in terms of the nation’s current health status?”

“I agree with everything you are saying,” she began. “But you see, that’s what everyone thinks, that we spend billions of dollars.  Do you know what our annual budget is?  $1.2 million!”

“You’re kidding? That’s it?”

No, in fact, she wasn’t kidding.  The President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, which began in 1953 under Dwight Eisenhower as a cabinet-level position, is as substantial as the Hollywood back lot western town Mel Brooks used for Blazing Saddles. It’s a facade.  Just for comparison sake, Corn Subsidies in the United States totaled $77.1 billion from 1995-2010.

Then on this morning’s USA TODAY front page I see this featured story: We Must ‘find a cure’ to Save Memories, U.S. launches war to beat Alzheimer’s by 2025”.  Yet to the left of that story, along the Newsline is the blurb, “Skip drive-thru, Burger King tries out home delivery”.

If it weren’t so tragic, I guess it would be funny.  Here we are proposing to spend a real $billion or more to combat Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia that causes progressive loss of intellectual and social skills, while at the same time we publicize home delivery of Burger King. We’ve become so busy/lazy as a society that we won’t even go out to the car and drive to the fast-food restaurant anymore?  Are they going to pre-chew that Whopper for us, too?  I’d say it’s a blessing we get Alzheimer’s; it makes us forget to just shoot ourselves.

Thousands of miles away old friend Jack Waitz is in Iten, Kenya witnessing first-hand the factory like manner in which the Kenyans from the Central Highlands continue to churn out world-class distance runners.

“Eye-opening, isn’t it, Jack,” I wrote on his Facebook page.

“For sure, there are mornings with 250!”  Meaning 250 runners gathering to train.

“It’s a numbers/talent/economic/cultural equation that seems beyond the capacity of any other nation,” I replied. “Kenya builds distance runners the way the U.S. builds diabetics.”

And, evidently, Alzheimer’s patients – though Alzheimer’s is only the sixth leading cause of death in America behind such traditional gravediggers as heart disease, cancer, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.  Good thing we have that $1.2 million from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition working for us. That ought to help make that Alzheimer’s initiative that much more effective.

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“OUR GRETE”

Grete Waitz Statue, Bislett Stadium

     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. 

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