Today is September 16 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you live in calm waters?” Navigating the chaos often requires one to not live in calm waters. English novelist Jane Austen wrote in Persuasion: “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” Two such women who did not want to be in calm waters all their lives were mountaineer Junko Tabei and runner Katherine Switzer.
Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei was the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, and the first woman to ascend all Seven Summits by climbing the highest peak on every continent. Tabei was born in Miharu, Fukushima, the fifth daughter in a family of seven children. She was considered a frail, weak child, but nevertheless she began mountain climbing at the age of 10, going on a class climbing trip to Mount Nasu. Although she was interested in doing more climbing, her family did not have enough money for such an expensive hobby, and Tabei made only a few climbs during her high school years.
From 1958 to 1962, Tabei studied English literature and education at Showa Women's University, where she was a member of the mountain climbing club. After graduating, Tabei formed the Ladies Climbing Club: Japan (LCC) in 1969. The club's slogan was "Let's go on an overseas expedition by ourselves," and was the first of its kind in Japan. Tabei later stated that she founded the club as a result of how she was treated by male mountaineers of the time; some men, for example, refused to climb with her, while others thought she was only interested in climbing as a way to find a husband.
During this time, she climbed mountains such as Mount Fuji in Japan and the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. By 1972, Tabei was a recognized mountain climber in Japan. Reflecting upon lessons learned while navigating the chaos Tabei noted “Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top; it is the willpower that is the most important. This willpower you cannot buy with money or be given by others; it rises from your heart.”
Around the same time Junko Tabei inspired women to climb mountains, Kathrine Virginia Switzer had similar technique, ability, and willpower and in so doing encouraged women to run marathons. In 1967, she became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an officially registered competitor. As a 19-year-old journalism student at Syracuse University Switzer trained with the men’s cross-country team since there was no women’s running team at the time. Coach Arnie Briggs took her under his wing and would go for long runs with Switzer. On one cold December evening run the two started to discuss running the Boston Marathon. Briggs, a veteran of 15 Boston Marathons, said “No woman can run the Boston Marathon.”
The prevailing wisdom at the time was that women were too fragile to run 26.2 miles, the distance would disrupt their ability to have children, and women were simply inferior to men. In short, only men could run marathons. Briggs said he would support her dream to run in Boston but only if she could run the distance in practice. So, three weeks prior to the marathon, Switzer took Briggs on a 31-mile run. She proved she had the ability to go the distance. As Switzer recalled “The next day Arnie came to my dorm and insisted that I sign up for the race.”
During her run, race manager Jock Semple repeatedly assaulted Switzer trying to grab her bib number and stop her competing. After knocking down Switzer's trainer and fellow runner Arnie Briggs when he tried to protect her, Semple was shoved to the ground by Switzer's boyfriend, Thomas Miller, who was running with her, and she completed the race. Switzer understood the gravity of what her accomplishment would mean to women around the world. “I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe women had the capability to run 26-plus miles. If I quit, everybody would say it was a publicity stunt. If I quit, it would set women's sports back, way back, instead of forward. If I quit, I'd never run Boston. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win. My fear and humiliation turned to anger.” In 1972, five years after Switzer’s courageous running. women could be official entrants into the Boston Marathon. Another 12 years would pass before the Olympics offered the first Woman's Marathon. Switzer helped cover the historical event as a commentator for ABC.
Poet Nikita Gill wrote “Fill your life with women that empower you, that help you believe in your magic and aid them to believe in their own exceptional power and their incredible magic too. Women that believe in each other can survive anything. Women who believe in each other create armies that will win kingdoms and wars.”
Junko Tabei and Katherine Switzer were two women who navigated the chaos in their respective fields by not living in calm waters. They pioneered paths for women in mountaineering and marathon running. By believing in their own ‘power and magic’ their legacies allowed armies of women to follow in their footsteps.
How often do you live in calm waters?
How often do you surround yourself with people that help you ‘believe in your magic?’
How often are you pioneering a path forward for those who need someone to show them the way?