- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2007

BOSTON — Kathrine Switzer has never met Tatyana McFadden, but in many ways the two athletes have much in common.

Switzer, who was honored here yesterday some 40 years after she became the first official woman to finish the Boston Marathon, is truly one of the small handful of women largely responsible for the fact that nearly half of the 23,500 official starters in tomorrow’s marathon are women.

As a 20-year-old Syracuse student who played field hockey and basketball at Marshall High School in Falls Church, Switzer did not buy into the prevailing thought in 1967 that women were too weak to run a mile, let alone 26 of them. In fact, she trained with the men’s cross country and track teams under coach Arnie Briggs and wrote sports for her student newspaper.

She chose Boston, one of only a dozen marathons at that time, to prove to herself that she was capable of going the distance. But at the time, Boston Marathon officials did not allow women into their race, although the race application never asked about gender. She registered as K.V. Switzer, got a number and set out from the Hopkinton starting line on April 19, 1967 under a hooded sweat suit.

Nearly four miles into the race in Framingham, race official Jock Semple made history when he jumped off the press truck and tried to rip Switzer’s number from her chest. The picture of the altercation is one of the most famous in running history.

Switzer went on to finish the marathon as she had hoped. She came back in 1970 and was fifth of five unofficial women finishers, then third of three in 1971 before Boston had its first official race in 1972.

For the next decades, she lobbied tirelessly to promote women’s running events, including the inclusion of the women’s marathon in the 1984 Olympics. Men also have greatly benefited from Switzer’s lifelong efforts.

“The embarrassing thing for me now is that I sold women so short at the time,” she told the Framingham News in a 2002 interview. “I thought other women weren’t interested in sports and I thought they didn’t get it. It wasn’t until after Jock tried to tackle me that I realized the reason other women weren’t there is that they hadn’t had the same opportunities that I’d had or the encouragement from their family, dad or coach.”

For McFadden, there is a collective Jock Semple trying to knock her off course.

McFadden, the Maryland high school girl who is paralyzed from the waist down with spina bifida, has spent the past two years like Switzer did, fighting for inclusion. She is the second-fastest wheelchair racer in the world on the track, winning silver and bronze at the 2004 Athens Paralympics.

She believes she should be able to race on the same track, in the same race, as the able-bodied runners on the girls’ track team in Atholton, near Columbia. She is trying to be a pioneer for people with disabilities, but instead of bringing people together like Switzer did, she is tearing them apart.

And she has gotten so carried away and selfish with her mission that she tells people she doesn’t care if she is hated, as long as she gets what she wants.

First, she wanted a track uniform. Then she wanted to be able to race on the same track during girls’ track competitions (officials allowed her to race between events). That wasn’t enough; she wanted designated wheelchair races in each meet. So she sued the Howard County school system, a case she won. Then she wanted to score points for her team being the only wheelchair athlete in the meet. So she sued again.

She wants the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association to allow her victories against the slower able-bodied athletes to count in the regional and state meets toward the overall team competition, which would give Atholton a hugely unfair advantage. The case could be heard as early as next month.

At some point, the people in the legal system and those defending people with disabilities must wake up and realize that wheelchair racers hold a significant advantage over able-bodied runners. The two sports cannot be compared because they are so different.

In order to be a pioneer like Switzer, McFadden needs to wake up to the fact that she is different, and that’s not a bad thing. Her difference got her a trip to one of the most prestigious sporting events on Earth, the Paralympics in Athens. Instead of wasting precious state and county money with lawsuits, her benefit to the sport would be much greater if she took her passion, persistence and tenacity and scoured the state of Maryland and the country getting some hard-luck wheelchair-bound kids off and rolling in track and field.

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