Marathon great Grete Waitz dies at 57


Norway's Grete Waitz, seen in this Sept. 23, 2009 file photo, who won nine New York Marathons and a silver medal at the Los Angeles Olympics, has died after a six year battle with cancer. She was 57. Waitz won her first New York City Marathon in 1978, setting a world best in 2 hours, 32 minutes, 30 seconds. She went on to win eight more times, with her last victory coming in 1988. She won the London Marathon twice, in 1983 and '86, and earned five titles at the world cross-country championships from 1978-81 and 1983.(AP Photo/Berit Roald, Scanpix, File)

Published: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 10:59 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 6:04 p.m.

Gainesville resident Peter Lars Johnson said he will never forget his 2002 trip to the New York City Marathon with Grete Waitz.

There was a lavish lunch at Tavern on the Green in Central Park. And Johnson was amazed how well Waitz, whom he knew as a private person, handled her public speaking engagements.

"I told her, 'Grete, you are very good'," Johnson said. "And she responded 'Yeah, but I don't like doing it.'"

Waitz, an iconic distance runner and part-time Gainesville resident for more than 20 years, died Tuesday at age 57 in her native Oslo, Norway after a six-year battle with cancer. Her husband Jack was by her side, said Helle Aanesen, who co-founded a cancer foundation with Waitz. There was no word on what type of cancer felled the marathon legend, who disclosed no details about her condition after being diagnosed in 2005.

A nine-time New York City Marathon champion, Waitz also was a four-time Olympic distance runner who won a silver medal in the 1984 games in Los Angeles in the women's marathon.

"She provided runners and athletes all over the world inspiration by how she carried herself and what she was able to accomplish," said Gainesville resident Marty Liquori, a renowned American middle-distance runner. "If you watched how hard she trained, you would realize that her greatness didn't come by accident."

It was Liquori who suggested that Waitz move to Gainesville in 1987 to train for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Liquori's father helped Waitz and her husband find a home in Meadowbrook, a golf course community in Northwest Gainesville.

"Grete liked it here because she wasn't a star in Gainesville," Liquori said. "She didn't have the same kind of pressure she had in Oslo, where people would stop her on the street. She could go to the health club in the morning, get on the exercise bike and go fairly unnoticed."

Waitz, who retired from competitive running in 1990, often spent mornings at Gainesville Health and Fitness Center on the bikes in the spinning room.

"She liked to go and work out early in the morning," said Hal Rothman, a close friend and Gainesville resident. "She was a pretty private person. She spent a lot of time reading and kept up with current events."

Liquori said sometimes people working out at GHFC would recognize Waitz, and she would nod and be pleasant.

"I had friends who told me they were pretty amazed at how hard and fast she worked out on the bike," Liquori said.

Rothman said Waitz and her husband visited their Gainesville home about eight or 10 times a year. Rothman said he last saw Waitz in Gainesville over the Christmas holidays.

"Her and Jack came over in the morning, and we had coffee and she brought some books," Rothman said. "In talking with her, you wouldn't realize she was a famous person."

But Rothman said there were times when Waitz used her celebrity to benefit the Gainesville community. In 1990, Waitz helped give a boost to the inaugural Great Gainesville Road Race.

"Grete was really instrumental in getting the race in the spotlight," Rothman said. "The race benefited Stop Children's Cancer, and she loaned her name and her celebrity to the event long before she was diagnosed. We were able to attract some quality distance runners, and the race really became a major stop on the Florida circuit."

Johnson said he was looking forward to seeing Waitz in February in Gainesville, but that Waitz had canceled the trip due to health reasons.

"She survived a remarkably long time because of her fitness level," Johnson said. "It's a big loss to the running community, but it's also a big loss to Gainesville because she spent so many winters down here. I will miss her."

Before becoming the world's top women's marathoner, Waitz competed at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics in the 1,500 meters, set world records for the 3,000 in 1975 and 1976, and was unbeaten in cross-country races for 12 years.

She missed the 1980 Moscow Games because of the American-led boycott.

Waitz won the marathon gold medal at the inaugural world championships in 1983. A year later in Los Angeles, she took second behind American Joan Benoit in the first women's Olympic marathon.

She won the London Marathon twice, in 1983 and '86, the Stockholm Marathon in 1988 and earned five titles at the world cross-country championships from 1978-81 and 1983. Her last victory in the New York Marathon came in 1988.

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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