By Gary Walker
Social justice, one of the core tenants of Loyola Marymount University and its Jesuit tradition, can manifest itself in numerous ways.
For Jacqueline Hansen, an LMU graduate turned faculty member, it was fighting for gender equality in sports on her way to becoming a marathon world-record holder.
At the peak of her running career, Hansen became a champion on the streets, as a winner of one of the nation’s most prominent marathons; on the world stage, helping to make women’s marathon running an Olympic sport; and on the front lines of the battle to give women full access to collegiate athletic programs.
Boston and beyond
At 65, Hansen is a distance running coach at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey in addition to teaching health classes and training future teachers in LMU’s School of Education.
At 25, Hansen won the Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual marathon and one of the six World Marathon Majors.
“It launched my career as a marathoner,” Hansen said. “It really changed my life.”
But Hansen didn’t stop running in Boston. In the 1970s and 1980s, she won several more marathons and set several world records, becoming the first woman to run a marathon in under four hours.
Not bad for someone who claims to have “hated” her physical education classes at Granada Hills High School.
“I was shortest one, the least talented, and I would take electives to get out of it,” Hansen recalled.
Now Hansen, who began coaching in 1987 at Topanga Elementary School and then St. Monica’s High School in Santa Monica before she was hired at St. Bernard last year, is teaching phys-ed.
St. Bernard Principal Cynthia Hoepner said Hansen’s professional and activist experiences have enriched the school’s young athletes.
“Jacqueline embodies the spirit of hard work, consistency and persistence — lessons for any student athlete to take with them in and out of the classroom,” Hoepner said.
As Hansen chronicles in her book “A Long Time Coming,” those same qualities served her well as an advocate for women in sports.
Her greatest achievement
At about the same time that Hansen began her running career, Congress passed Title IX, a 1972 act that prohibits discrimination in educational programs and athletic events that receive federal funds.
Later as president of the International Runners Committee, Hansen led a campaign that resulted in an historic court victory that forced the International Olympic Committee to allow women to compete in Olympic distance running and marathon events.
“We weren’t allowed to run beyond 1500 meters before 1984,” she said.
While she considers winning the Boston Marathon and setting numerous world records as milestones her career as a runner, Hansen considers her work to include female runners in the Olympics her greatest achievement.
“How fitting it was that the first Olympic Marathon was run in Jacqueline’s hometown of Los Angeles,” wrote Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the inaugural women’s marathon race at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, in the forward to “A Long Time Coming.” She called Hansen “a true pioneer who has lived the history of our sport and helped make it possible all that we runners do today.”
Despite the strides that women’s sports have made over the last two decades, Hansen believes that young female athletes should be aware that not long ago things were very different.
“Whenever I’m invited to speak at girls and women’s day sports luncheons, I like to tell them not to take for granted what they have because it wasn’t always that way,” she said.
‘The best worst”
As a former Boston Marathon winner, Hansen was invited to come back as a marathon guest speaker earlier this year and made similar remarks before the race.
“I’ve walked a mile in your shoes, and I wish I was out there now. But just remember, a lot of women before you fought really hard for your right to run,” Hansen recalls telling the runners before firing the starting pistol.
But returning to the scene of arguably her greatest athletic accomplishment turned from joy to sadness when the two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line, killing three people and injuring many others.
Hansen had planned to wait at the Boylston Street finish line to greet runner Jeannie García, a runner who she was coaching at the time. García was arriving later than expected at the finish line, so Hansen decided to wait another 10 minutes. That was at 4 p.m.
“The bombs went off at 4:09,” Hansen recalled. “I was a half a block away from the finish line when I heard the ‘ka-boom, ka-boom,’ and I was in absolute disbelief.”
The world record-holder thinks her friend’s slower performance very likely saved her life or at least prevented her from being one of the many injured.
“I told her that was the best worst that she ever ran,” Hansen said.
Hansen plans to return again to Boston next year.
“It will be very emotional, but we’re hoping for a great turnout,” she said. “Runners are a very resilient crowd.”
Helping the next generation
Hansen said it was LMU’s social justice mission that attracted her to enrolling in graduate school there and eventually continuing on as faculty.
“She is the most humble champion I have ever met,” said Clarence Griffin, who works with Hansen as LMU’s director of strategic partnerships. “She understands the importance of enduring against all odds and transmits that quiet determination to everyone she comes into contact with,” including her students at St. Bernard’s.
St. Bernard’s boys runners have qualified for the California Interscholastic Federation state finals, and some of her runners said Hansen has left a lasting mark on them.
“She’s really helped us work harder as a team,” said junior Rebecca Mussman, who added that Hansen has imbued the team with a grittier, more tenacious approach.
“We’ve also done a lot more speed work with her,” said junior Bryce Bently.
Hansen has even inspired Hoepner to train for a half-marathon, this principal said.
Before becoming an advocate off the track, Hansen didn’t think much about leaving a lasting legacy on women’s sports. But as she watches today’s female athletes compete, that’s what seems most important.
“I saw something wrong in my world and I tried to fix it,” she said.