Toni St. Pierre
Katherine Switzer will forever be etched in history as the first woman to complete the all-male Boston Marathon as an official entrant in 1967. Toni St. Pierre, though less known, played an equally important role to open up opportunities for female athletes.
Toni St. Pierre just wanted to run.
She was a junior at Hopkins Eisenhower High School in 1972 in the same class as my wife Cheryl. Toni was a good athlete, but the school didn’t have a girls’ cross-country team, and St. Pierre wanted to compete. So she sued.
The American Civil Liberties Union took up her case against the Minnesota State High School League, filing it jointly with Peg Brenden, who was a St. Cloud high school senior who wanted to play tennis.
The case went to trial in the spring of 1972 before U.S. District Judge Miles Lord, the crusty champion of the common citizen. Lord ruled in favor of the girls.
The decision was one of the first in the nation to deal with the issue of equal rights for girls in high school sports and came a few months ahead of federal legislation signed by President Richard Nixon. That law, known as Title IX, prohibits sex discrimination in programs and activities at schools receiving federal funds.
After the landmark ruling, St. Pierre joined the boys’ cross-country, track and Nordic ski teams in high school. During her senior year, she became state champion in the mile and the half-mile, and her speedy half-mile time of 2:18.3 set a national record. In 2006, Hopkins High (Eisenhower closed in the 1980s) inducted her into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
While a student at the College of St. Benedict, she ran with the men’s cross country team at St. John’s because St. Ben’s didn’t have a team.
As an obstetrical nurse with Fairview Health Systems, she also took volunteer trips to Nepal, Vietnam and other developing countries to provide care for pregnant women.
But St. Pierre’s lifelong love of sports never waned. She ran triathlons and marathons, and her Facebook page flagged Jesse Owens as a favorite athlete.
She was aiming for a run at the Boston Marathon before getting sidelined with a pain in her leg, which eventually was diagnosed as a relatively rare malignant cancer of the smooth muscle which led to her premature death in February 2013 at the age of 58.
In his long legal career, Miles Lord took on mining companies for dumping waste into Lake Superior and medical companies for malpractice over the Dalkon Shield IUD. But he considered the girls’ case one of his “proudest decisions,” said Priscilla Lord Faris of her father.
“I had just given birth to my first daughter, and he called and asked what I thought of the case,” she said. “I said, ‘If you can make it so girls can do something other than be cheerleaders, that’d be a good thing.’ It played a big role in opening up all sports for women.”
St. Pierre was honored by the Minnesota Girls and Women in Sports Day at the Minnesota State Capitol for her role as an advocate for girls’ and women’s sports. The ceremony, which honored seven others, took place four days after she died.
Many history makers have no idea of the importance of their actions at the time. Katherine Switzer said, “I had no idea I was going to become part of history. I wasn’t running Boston to prove anything; I was just a kid who wanted to run her first marathon.”
Whether my five-year old granddaughter decides to become a marathon runner like her grandfather is yet to be determined and is not really important. At least she has that opportunity now. As she begins kindergarten this year I am thankful for the world of athletic options that will be available to her in the public school system, thanks to trail blazers like Toni St. Pierre.
(Most of the content of this post came from Toni St. Pierre’s obituary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper.)