A Norwegian Tradition
Born Grete Andersen in Oslo, Norway in 1953, Waitz grew up with the Norwegian tradition of exercise and outdoor activity. Norwegians customarily hike during the summer and cross-country ski in the winter, as well as engaging in other sports; she told Michael Sandrock in Running with the Legends that Norway is "a sports heaven."
Waitz loved to run, and her two older brothers, Jan and Arild, encouraged her and included her in their games with other boys. Waitz's mother thought their games were too rough for her and bought her a piano, but she preferred running to playing it. When she went on errands to the grocery store, she timed herself to see how fast she could get there and back, and on the way she raced cars and buses. When she played cops and robbers with other children, none of them could catch her.
By the time she was 12, she had participated in handball, gymnastics, and track, but she loved running most of all. She joined the Vidar Sports Club in Oslo, at the encouragement of her neighbor, Terje Pedersen, who was a world record holder. At the club, she participated in the high jump, long jump, and shot put, winning her first prize, a silver spoon, in a ball-throwing contest. Although she did not do well in short races of 60 or 80 meters, she did better at distances of 300 meters or longer, and began training for the 400 and 800 meters. She also began making longer runs of 6 miles, keeping up with the boys.
Waitz often got up before dawn to run, a practice she continued throughout her running life. In 1969, when she was 16, she won the Norwegian junior championships
in the 400 and 800 meters. In 1971, she won the Norwegian open 800 and 1,500 meters, and set a European junior record of 4:17.0 in the 1,500. Although Waitz also ran at the Helsinki European Championships in 1971, she did not qualify for the 1,500. According to Sandrock, she later said, "I was disappointed, perplexed, angry, and only 17 years old.… My bitterness fed my desire to excel. Just as with my parents, this denial of support strengthened my determination."
In 1972, when Waitz was 18, she experienced a tragedy—her boyfriend and coach became ill and died. Waitz stopped eating and running, but her teammates from the track club helped her through the difficult time and encouraged her to use her running and training to help heal her grief.