Maybe Jim Ryun had the most inauspicious start of any major sports figure in American history.
The church baseball team didn’t want him, the junior basketball team didn’t think much of his talents and cut him and the junior high track and field team thought his future might with something like the debate team, if one existed at East High School in Wichita, Kan.
“I ran because I couldn’t do anything else,” Ryun said in a self-deprecating style that makes him easily likable.
“I remember going to bed at night and asking God, ‘What do you want me to do with my life?’”
The answer was a runner.
The 66-year-old Ryun stood in front of a packed crowd Saturday morning at the DoubleTree by Hilton in the Meadows Lands for the Washington County Men’s Prayer Breakfast and releated these and other stories of his great career.
The person who had such limited ability in most organized sports ended up with some impressive accomplishments.
• As a junior at East High School, Ryun shocked the running world when he became the first high school runner to crack the 4-minute mile when he turned in a 3:59 at the Compton Relays in California in June 1964.
• Nearly a year later, he became the first runner to run under four minutes in the mile in an all-high-school competition when he crossed in 3:58.3 at the Kansas State Championships.
• In June 1968, Ryun set the world record in the 880-yard run with a blistering time of 1:44.9.
• Ryun shattered the world record in the 1,500 meters in Los Angeles in 1967 by beating longtime rival Kip Keino of Kenya in 3:33.1.
• He qualified for three summer Olympics, won a silver medal in the 1,500 in Mexico City in 1968 and probably would have medaled again in the 1,500 in Munich in 1972 but was tripped in the semifinals.
• Ryun set six world records, held the world record in the mile for nine years and the U.S. mile record for 14 years. He won three National AAU one-mile titles and five national collegiate titles, four of them indoors. In 1967, he received the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete.
• He was on the cover of seven issues of Sports Illustrated, was named Athlete of the Year by ABC’s Wide World of Sports and was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1980.
“I got an answer to my prayer,” Ryun said. “While I was running, I had a hard time believing this was actually happening to me.”
Ryun lost only one varsity race in high school, his first try in the mile. He took second, behind the eventual state champion that year.
“Even with all the success, I have had a difficult time to (think of myself) as a special athlete,” he said. “I learned to deal with failure as a youngster. I think that helped. I see there are no-cut teams now, but I would suggest parents find a place where your children can get cut from the team. These experiences helped formed my life.”
While running formed his life, his faith revitalized it.
“I grew up in a religious home, and I think that helped me,” he said. “As I went along, religion didn’t seem to serve me well. In 1972, I dedicated my life to Jesus Christ. It changed me.”
It also led him down another path: politics.
Ryun was perfectly content to thrive in his new career as a motivational speaker and the owner of Jim Ryun Sports, which organized running camps and still operates today on the website ryunrunning.com.
When an opening in Topeka’s second district occurred in 1996, Ryun ran again, winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He stayed until 2007, when he decided against running for another term.
“I traveled a lot with the U.S. team to places like Great Britain and Russia,” he said. “I thought maybe someday I could help make this country a litt bit better. I had helped other people run for office, and I enjoyed helping people.”
Evetually, he found politics did not fit his style.
“I learned as an athlete that you don’t cut corners,” he said. “In Congress, you have to shout your accomplishments from the rooftops. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t comfortable doing that. Someone once told me that I was a great workhorse but not a great showhorse.”
Ryun lives in Washington D.C. now and has not given up running. Instead of battling the sometime dangerous streets of the Capitla, he retreats to the basement where he can run in relative safety on his tread mill.
“I’ve run very slowly,” he said. “Now, I’m trying to break the eight-minute mile.”