Running star Tori Gerlach reminded chauvinism still plagues her sport

Tori Gerlach is shown here getting ready for the steeplechase at this year’s U.S. Olympic Trials. (Photo by Joe Hale)     
       It took 71 years for women to crash the gender barrier at the Boston Marathon and it only happened because the brave Katherine Switzer said enough was enough.
      No female had officially run the famous 26.2-miler since its inception in 1896, but that didn’t stop Switzer from registering (as K.V. Switzer, so as not to give away her gender) and getting to the starting line in 1967.
      Only one problem: Around Mile 4, race director Jock Semple pulled up in a car and tried to stop Switzer from continuing. Fortunately, Switzer’s training partner, Arnie, pushed Semple aside and she went on to complete the race.
      Fast forward some 54 years and one would guess that sort of thinking would be gone by now.
      Guess again.
      While progressive ideals might be more prominent in our society today, there are still a few holdouts. Like the director of a race – the Phoenix Turkey Trot — in Arizona who apparently believes that women who run extraordinarily fast times simply can’t be trusted and therefore don’t deserve their just reward for a great accomplishment.
      Tori Gerlach, daughter of former Council Rock High School standout runner Dana Menago McCafferty, got a taste of this still alive-and-well chauvinism while competing in the Turkey Trot 5K during a visit to the Grand Canyon State recently.
      Gerlach, 27, a former two-time state two-mile champion at Pennridge High School, a Big 10 titlist with Penn State and a recent U.S. Olympic Trials competitor in the steeplechase, ran a brilliant time of 16:19 and not only finished first woman but also fifth overall.
      But when her name wasn’t announced at the awards ceremony, she went up to the desk and basically asked the assistant director “what’s the deal?’’ She pointed out she was pretty sure she was the first woman to cross the line but apparently the director wasn’t buying it.
      Then, to Gerlach’s amazement, she learned she had been “disqualified.’’
      Why? Because the race director, who apparently wasn’t watching the finish line as runners crossed, didn’t believe that a woman could run that fast.
      What? Is this 2021 or 1921?
      So no listing in the final results for top finishers? No trophy like the top man received?
      “When it’s actually happening, you don’t know how to process it,’’ said Gerlach in a telephone conversation from her residence near Boulder, Colorado. “It’s like that didn’t feel right. I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t receive all the information from him (the director) directly; I was told that information from another woman who was handling the times.’’
      Things were just about to get heated.
      “So when the race director came over, the way he acted toward me is when I started feeling weird about it,’’ Gerlach said. “He didn’t look me in the eye, he didn’t apologize, didn’t really talk to me. Sort of trying to sweep it under the rug. That’s what rubbed me the wrong way.’’
      If only the director had Googled Tori he would have known he was dealing with a national running star.
      “It really had nothing to do with my running,’’ said Gerlach. “It was just totally wrong. I didn’t take it like a personal thing, like ‘he doesn’t know who I am.’ It was more like why would you assume something like that?’’
      The race director also had the nerve to ask one of his staff members near the finish line if Gerlach “looked thin, or real fit.’’
      How does this guy still have a job?
      Gerlach says this isn’t her first brush with gender prejudice. The sport might have a lot of female runners but a lot of coaches, administrators and the like are men and more than a few are backward thinkers.
      Eventually race officials said they would mail a plaque to her home in Colorado. But it wasn’t about the trophy – she has plenty of those – it’s more about the principle of the whole thing.
      “I don’t really care,’’ she said. “Apparently they’re going to send it. I wasn’t doing the race for the plaque.’’
      Tori’s mom, now the cross country and track coach at New Hope-Solebury High School, says she’s run into similar behavior in her field of work.
      “It’s still rampant in the coaching ranks,’’ Dana said. “It seems to be stuck in the ‘70s. It’s still that way. One time some coaches, all male, were discussing the protocol for the (alignment of the) high jump, triple jump at a meet. One male coach said to me, “Will you just shut up and let me talk?’’ And I said, “No I’m not.’’ A couple coaches said, how come they called you out. It was because I was a woman.’’
      Hopefully, these “old school’’ figures are a dying breed and we can move on to true equality in the sport of running/track-field.
      Great athletes such as Tori Gerlach deserve as much.
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About Wayne Fish 2446 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.