Possibly the greatest American distance runner in the history of the country, Jim Ryun was born on April 29, 1947, in Wichita, Kansas. Ryun grew up as a very focused, hard working individual; when he dedicated himself to a goal, he would do nothing but work to achieve it. His diligent manner is what would play the greatest part in his later athletic dominance.
Ryun first started running during his freshman year at Wichita East High School in 1962. In his first high school race, Ryun ran a 5:38 (a pathetic time, below average for any competitive high school runner). As Ryun himself admits, this is where he first learned that he didn’t like to lose. From that point on, Ryun dedicated himself entirely to becoming a competitive athlete. He later said, in retrospect, “I owed it all (I thought) to my god – running. I gave my god the best of everything. . . my time, my energy, my love.”
After a mediocre, at best, freshman year, Ryun would establish himself as one of the state's top runners during his first race as a sophomore. He came in second place in 4:32, and it would be the last race he would ever lose in his entire school running career. His best time of 1963 would be a 4:07 mile, which was far and away the best time in the state and one of the best times in the country.
Very few high school athletes can improve on the times that Ryun had achieved. It takes a mental discipline and dedication that is almost nonexistent in athletes that are not always fully developed mentally or physically. Ryun, however, would not allow himself to go anywhere but up. Ryun would go on to do the impossible: he became the first high school student to break the four minute mile in 3:59 and qualify for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
Ryun refused to plateau, and continued to come dangerously close to the world record in the mile during his senior year. He won his third state title race in 3:58, break his previous record by a full second. Still, his greatest high school achievement was yet to come. Six weeks later, Ryun would defeat former Olympic champion Peter Snell and set the American mile record at 3:55, a second and a half off the world record. During his final days as a high school runner, Ryun became the fastest man in the United States.
Even those who had believed in Ryun up to his record-breaking race had doubts as to whether or not he could improve. Ryun put many of them to rest when he became the world record holder for the 880-meter race in 1:44.9 during his freshman year at Kansas University. The following year, Ryun would astound the world when he surpassed the former world record in the mile, held by Michael Jazy, by 2.3 seconds (which might as well be a lifetime), finishing in 3:51.3. He would again break his own world record by shaving .2 seconds off his former best later in the season. For these accomplishments, he was named the youngest ever Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year and earned the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top athlete.
Unfortunately, sponsorship for running was almost unheard of in those days. Even though Ryun had gained worldwide recognition as one of the greatest living athletes, he struggled to make enough money by bagging groceries in his hometown.
In 1967, Ryun became the world record holder in the 1500-meter race (3:33) and the indoor half-mile race (1:48), and also anchored Kansas University’s sprint medley team to a world record (3:15). In 1968, he placed second in the Mexico City Olympics in the 1500 to Kip Keino after dealing with health problems for the previous year.
In his third Olympic visit in Munich, Germany, however, Ryun fell victim to one of the greatest athletic injustices in the history of the Olympics. During the qualifiers for the 1500, in which he was running against Keino again through a glich, Ryun fell as he began to pull away for his trademark strong finishes during the last 500 meters of the race. Before he could pull away completely from the field, he was blatantly tripped by a not-as-competent runner. The whole ordeal was caught on video, which clearly showed the trip. The Olympic Committee refused to reinstate Ryun even though they openly recognized the foul had occurred, stating that they wouldn’t do it simply because it had never been done before.
Afterwards, Ryun announced his retirement from competitive running, mostly due to the fact that running was no longer his god. A few years earlier, Ryun had met his future wife Anne. Although she urged him to continue his running, he quit mostly in order to spend more time with her. America, shocked, had lost its greatest runner in the country’s history.
Ryun, now 56, has 4 children: Heather, Ned, Drew, and Catherine. He runs Jim Ryun Running Camp and is currently a US Representative for the state of Kansas. His high school mile record stood until 2001, when the amazing Alan Webb broke it in 3:53.43. Ryun’s record, however, is all the more impressive due to the time in which he did it. Coaching strategies were not optimal, and Ryun had only the local high school coach to lead him to his success. Alan Webb had the best coaches in the nation and also had the advantage of improved technology and science. Not to take away from Webb’s achievement, but no high school runner will ever be able to come close to the achievement of the homegrown Ryun’s shattering of the four-minute barrier.
In Quest of Gold: The Jim Ryun Story by Jim Ryun.