Marathon pioneer Kathrine Switzer looks back on Title IX

(CBS News) NEW PALTZ, N.Y. - This week marks the 40th anniversary of a federal law that requires equal opportunities for both boys and girls in school programs.

Title IX makes no mention of sports, but the law has opened a door for many women athletes. Kathrine Switzer's story is an example of how far women athletes have come these past 40 years.

"In 1967 I had trained for the Boston marathon and my coach, he really inspired me," said the veteran athlete. But her coach also didn't believe a woman could run the marathon distance.

"My own coach didn't believe it," she said. "That was the prevalent thinking, that if woman became an athlete she was going to get big legs, grow hair on her chest, never have children."

Switzer entered the race under her initials. Her coach picked up her official number. And there was utter shock when she appeared in the field of men.

"The race director who saw this whole thing lost his temper and chased me down the street attacked me, and said, 'Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers'and tried to rip my bib numbers off me," Switzer recalled.

An angry director didn't stop Switzer from making it to the finish line. "My boyfriend, he smacked the official out of the race and down the street we went," she said. "When I finished the race, I felt so great so much better than at the start. I felt so great, I had a life plan and really it was to create opportunities for women in the sport."

So began Switzer's marathon to clear the way for female runners. The 65-year-old said she didn't realize her brave gesture occurred just as a fight for equal access in sports was taking off in Congress.

"I was aware that Congress was fighting for women's rights in education and jobs," Switzer said, "and I thought that was absolutely fantastic. Of course I had no idea that was going to apply to sports."

The fight in Congress resulted in Title IX, which said schools had to open all their activities to both genders -- including sports.

"Title IX has changed the landscape. There isn't a girl in this country who should grow up with a sense of limitation," Switzer said.

One of those girls who cleared the lane for women was Joan Benoit Samuelson. In 1984, she won the gold medal in the first Olympic women's marathon.

"When I first started running in the early 1970s, women couldn't run more than 1500 meters in international and national competition," Samuelson said, "so 150 thousands miles and 40 years later I'm still running."

When Benoit Samuelson broke the tape, Kathrine Switzer was the TV commentator for the race.

"When Joan Benoit came through that stadium and ran it so well, people from all over the world were convinced of women's capability," Switzer said.

At 65, Switzer is training for her 40th marathon and has plans to return to Boston next April. When she does, she may still be able to outrun the race director -- but this time she'll have competition from more than ten thousand other women who have joined the race.

  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley", "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood". She joined CBS News in 2004.

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