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GRETE WAITZ:
An appreciation
for a gracious, humble role model

Grete in photos

Waitz

The shy little blonde schoolgirl from Norway who grew up to be one of the most accomplished women distance runners of all-time, and then an outspoken advocate for health and fitness, leaves a world of admirers in the JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge® family.

“She was like a good neighbor,” said Renee Rombaut O’Keefe, seven-time winner of the Rochester Chase Corporate Challenge, after hearing of the death of Grete Waitz to cancer at age 57 on April 19. “Grete was so friendly, so easy to talk to. I got to run with her in a warmup with a small group the day before the 2004 race and it was like running with a friend.

“We just talked and talked. She was so easy to be around.”

That comfort connection, the no-attitude “Scandinavian cool,” helped Grete stay true to her roots long after her New York City Marathon championships, her world championships, world records, Olympic silver medal and countless other honors.

It’s what Barbara Paddock, one of the founders of the JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge, said impressed her most when she offered Grete the role of Series spokesperson in 1980.

“After she’d won her ninth New York City Marathon,” Paddock, a Senior Vice President at JPMorgan Chase, said, “we started an event in Oslo at the request of Grete and her husband, Jack. Then we expanded the series to other European cities, like Stockholm and Dublin. I got to know the Waitz family very well.

“Grete served in a lot of different capacities for us, for more than 25 years,” Paddock continued. “She’d hold clinics, meet clients, speak to employees at client companies, write a newsletter…you name it and she did it, and to the nth degree.

“She was very dedicated. You know how some superstar athletes wing it in public appearances? Not Grete. She took the time to prepare, and was very thoughtful to her audience.”

Waitz-Dimon
Grete Waitz smiles as she pins a bib number on James "Jamie" Dimon, chairman and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., during a Corporate Challenge race in Dallas.

And that audience extended around the world. When the Corporate Challenge expanded to Johannesburg, South Africa in 2004, the media flocked to Grete. Her appearance at the 2005 event helped the event grow by more than 40-percent. 

Over the years, Grete appeared at every JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge race in the U.S. And now Grete’s influence is playing a role in the Corporate Challenge’s newest event.

David Xie of Shanghai, China, recalls meeting Grete when he was a Corporate Challenge team leader for Genentech, Inc. in San Francisco.

“Grete’s been a role model for me to keep running even after I relocated to Shanghai. In China, running has been more related to the professional athletes who compete solely for the honor of the country,” Xie said. “Grete, in my mind, is a hero to motivate ordinary citizens who run for health, for fun and for life fulfillment.”

Waitz made such an impression on Xie, that when he learned the Corporate Challenge would be expanding to Shanghai this October 20, he immediately impressed upon his employer the importance of entering. Xie will be on the starting line with his colleagues from ChemPartner Co., a pharmaceutical and biotech firm.

“The Corporate Challenge provides an excellent opportunity for team building for corporate runners in China,” Xie said. “And I have Grete to thank for the introduction.”

Sister Rosemary Sherman, well-known in upstate New York as the Running Nun, is among hundreds, or perhaps thousands, who treasure Grete Waitz autographs from Corporate Challenge appearances.

As team captain for the Mary Cariola Children’s Center in Rochester, Sister Rosemary encountered Grete in the finishing chute of the 1995 race, and secured a signature on her shirt.

“We talked about her last New York race, in 1992,” Sister Rosemary said, “and how inspiring that was for me when she ran with Fred (New York City Marathon founder Fred Lebow) while he was dealing with cancer. When I found out she had cancer, I knew she was a woman of courage who’d try to beat it to the very last.”

Jack Clancy, a team leader with Midstate Industrial Supply in Syracuse, met Grete several times and was always struck by how personable she was to others.

“She had time for whoever approached her,” he said, “whether it be for an autograph, a picture (he has one) or just to talk. Without question, she was a very good spokesperson for the bank and the series.”

Waitz pose
Waitz poses for a photo at a JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge event.

In some respects it seemed improbable that one who was raised by strict parents and became guardedly protective of her private life would be, at least outwardly, at ease in the often hale-fellow-well-met corporate environment with CEOs and sales folks.

“Grete was always modest,” Jack Waitz said. “In many ways, other top athletes were more outgoing (but) it actually helped her popularity. She taught herself to learn to deal with people, and I think some of that came from her teaching background, too.

“Being involved with the Corporate Challenge and the corporate world really helped bring her out. There was something that connected right off with Grete and Barbara Paddock. A lot of things Grete did was because she felt a good personal relationship, and they had a great one.”

Barbara Tomchik oversaw marketing for the Corporate Challenge in Syracuse for 24 years and uses words like gracious, approachable and down-to-earth to describe Grete’s style.

“Grete was so good at paying attention to people’s stories,” Tomchik said. “These were strangers who she’d just met. She’d look them in the eye, smile and listen; make them feel like she was a close friend. There were so many times she’d visit client companies and encourage employees to participate. It went a long way toward helping build team camaraderie.”

Occasionally a casual meeting would develop into a longer friendship. That was the case for Barbara Rushman of Florham Park, N.J., who met Grete at a pre-race radio interview in Morristown, N.J, in 1994. Morristown was part of the Corporate Challenge series at the time and Rushman was working as a senior systems analyst for Nabisco.

“I always had followed her career and felt bonded to her,” Rushman recalled in an article in the Morris County (N.J.) Daily Record in late April, “maybe because she was a woman and maybe because I am of Norwegian heritage.”

Rushman said she sent Grete some pictures she’d taken at the interview, received a nice thank-you note back, and a 17-year correspondence and an occasional visitation was born. At first the letters were hand-written. Later they wrote by e-mail.

“I know she had several pen pals via the Corporate Challenge,” Rushman said, “Through the years we’d try to connect up when she was in New York. We’d talk about food and cooking, workouts, stuff like that. She got me to eat something, like a banana, before a run. We talked about pain, and how ibuprofen didn’t work for her. I told her that my husband/physician John said that 800-milligram strength is the way to go, short-term, with that. I got her to take higher doses. We’d basically talk about everything except her running accomplishments.”

Jack Waitz said his wife was so committed to the Corporate Challenge and its message of health and fitness for everyday people in the workplace that she’d often alter her schedule to accommodate a Corporate Challenge appearance.

“Grete often said, I like what I’m doing,” Jack Waitz said. “It’s important.”

When Grete visited the Rochester race in 2007, two years after being diagnosed, Grete agreed to talk publicly of her ordeal for the first time.  She was wearing a blonde wig to hide her hair loss following a regimen of chemotherapy sessions at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. She worried that the interview would drain her of energy and she asked that it be scheduled mid-day or early afternoon.

“No night sessions, please,” she said. “I’m in bed by 8 o’clock.”

One other request: Do not, absolutely not, ever mention the type of cancer she had. Please. It took two years for her to decide to open up about her disease, even if just a little, because she said it goes against her nature.

finish
As Laura Bloedorn crosses the finish line at a soggy Rochester Corporate Challenge in 2004, Waitz releases the finishing tape and applauds. The nine-time winner of the New York City Marathon, World Marathon Champion and world marathon record holder was quick to celebrate the success of others in her role at spokesperson for the JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge.

“I’m a private person,” she said, “and I don’t believe, even though I’m well-known and pretty outgoing, that people have a right to know everything about you.

“That has helped me to think positively and not dwell on the negatives. You talk about it so much, it just drags you down.”

Her daily runs became even more important as treatment wore on, sapping her strength.

“I get up before dawn and get my run in before daylight,” she said. “About 45 minutes. Maybe seven- or eight-minute-mile pace. I like to run alone, and I don’t talk when I run. I do some of my best thinking then. I just let my mind go.”

Grete stayed positive and was attentive to details until her last days. She specified to Jack that she wanted a very small, no-frills funeral with only those attending from a list she’d prepared. The Norwegian government requested an elaborate state funeral but Jack and Grete’s brothers, Jan and Arild Andersen, said no.

About 30 attended. She was the sixth woman in Norwegian history to be buried with government honor at state expense. Two government representatives were included at the ceremony. The family did agree to a memorial service in Oslo’s Bislett Stadium later in the week, where a bigger-than-life statue of Grete was dedicated near the main entrance 27 years ago. More than 1,500 attended that service, including Olympic gold medalist and longtime friend Joan Benoit Samuelson and Mary Wittenberg, president of New York Road Runners and director of the ING New York City Marathon.

“I have a lot of instructions,” Jack said. “Another was that no books be written about her life. I can’t tell you all of the others, but it was Grete being Grete, always planning.”

Tomchik said when she learned of Grete’s illness, instead of asking herself “how on earth can cancer strike someone with such a healthy lifestyle,” she found herself admiring Grete’s grit to fight back.

The reluctant runner who never really embraced her mantle of fame but held New York — “the city that never sleeps” — in the palm of her hand in the 1980s, practiced what she preached in retirement.

Tomchik believes that it “gave her some good years that she wouldn’t have had otherwise. I will always think of the human Grete, not the superstar Grete.”

Jim Castor, a retired sports editor for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, has covered running for more than four decades, including the 21 Rochester Chase Corporate Challenge races. He can be reached by e-mail at jcastor@jimcastor.com.

 

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