Stories You Should Know: Jim Ryun

Jim Ryun was raised in a middle-class family in Wichita, Kansas. Always a competitor, his first love was baseball, but he was so bad at it that he was cut from his church baseball team. The next was basketball, but then he couldn’t even make the junior high school team. He then tried out for the track and field team…again failure. 

In desperation his next move was to ask for divine guidance, “Dear God, if you’ve got a plan for my life, I’d appreciate it if you’d show up sooner or later because it’s not really going very well.” The next team he tried out for was cross country, and the Lord showed him his plan. He made the team.

From these humble beginnings Jim Ryun set out on a life that touched many others in a variety of disciplines. From the world’s best middle distance runner, to being “Born Again” into the Christian faith, to United States Congressman, to influential youth pastor and speaker. 

It started with running. Tall and slender he became a world class middle distance runner quickly.

By 1964, Jim Ryun had run the fastest mile ever run by a high school student. He made the United States Olympic team that competed in Tokyo. At 17 years, 137 days old he is, to this day, the youngest track athlete to represent the United States in the Olympics. Despite the rapid success at a young age he remained modest and self-effacing. As a high schooler he could find nobody who could push him, so he began competing against college runners. After being the first high schooler to break the 4-minute mile he was asked how he did. He answered that he was “Only third.”

Choosing the University of Kansas for college, he raised his game to another level. On June 10th, 1966 he set the world record in the 880, Then a month later he broke the most important record in sports at that time (the Mile Run), with a time of 3:51:3 in Berkeley, California. He was the most celebrated American Athlete in the World. Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year for 1966!

The following spring Ryun reluctantly participated in the Texas Relays. His coach Bob Timmons had worked him hard the week before. Ryun should not of run, but his participation was vital to encourage the Texas schools to participate in the Kansas Relays later in that year. The folks in Austin promoted the Relays by focusing on Ryun’s attempt at running the first sub-four minute mile in Texas history. He was exhausted, but still won the race in 4:03.9. The local media was outraged. The headline in the newspaper the next day was: DISAPPOINTING MILE: RYUN WINS RACE BUT DRAWS JEERS. Expectations were overwhelming for the 18-year old phenom.

Two months later, at those Kansas Relays, the Jayhawk Freshman showed exactly what a 19-year-old could do. He obliterated the Mile Record in 3:51.3, a full 2.3 seconds below France’s Michel Jazy’s World Record.

Ryun continued to dominate the middle distances in 1967. In June he lowered his World Record Mile time to 3:51:1 in Bakersfield, California. That record time would stand for nine years. 

On July 8th he set the World Record in the 1500 Meters at the L.A. Coliseum with a time of 3:33:1. That time held for 6 ½ years. 

Going into the 1968 season, he was the world record holder in both the 1500 meters and the Mile, and was the clear favorite to win Gold at the Mexico City Olympics. He easily qualified for the American Olympic Team, and then the Olympic 1500 Meter Final. 

Mexico City is at an altitude of 7,382 ft. At that altitude Ryun assumed that a time of 3:39 would win the event. Kip Keino from Kenya had other ideas. Keino took the lead at the halfway point, with Ryun biding his time back in the pack 30 meters behind the Kenyan. On the last lap Jim made his move, expecting Keino to come back to him. Ryun blew by the rest of the runners. But when he came clear, Keino was still 25 meters ahead. Jim closed some but Keino completed one of the most astounding 1500s in history, winning in 3:34.9. That time would not be bettered in the Olympics until 1984. Considering it was at 7,382 feet, that is one of the most outstanding performances in Olympics’ history. Ryun’s time of 3:37.8 was well inside his projected 3:39, but it was only good enough for silver. 

In 1972 Ryun made one more push to win a Gold Medal. He was no longer the kid whose potential seemed unlimited. He was 25 years old, and struggling like never before. After a 4:19.2 time in Los Angeles his coach Timmons was desperate. “I was beside myself, I was climbing walls.” He got tough with Jim, then changed his diet. Ryun was philosophical, “I’ve put my faith in God. What happens will be what He wants to happen.” At the United States Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Ryun attempted to qualify for the Olympic Team in two events; the 800 meters and the 1500. He failed in the 800, but qualified for the 1500 final after winning his two heats, then in a slow paced final, he came from the back of the pack in the final 330 meters to win going away to punch his ticket to Munich.

Howell Michael, who finished 4th in the event, thus not qualifying for the team was asked if he was happy for Jim Ryun. “Not particularly, this is dog eat dog. It only happens once every four years. Jim Ryun was a stud, but we don’t know whether he is the same Jim Ryun we knew in 1967.” Jim Ryun had the same doubts as he prepared for his opening heat in the Olympics’ 1500. 

Of course the Munich Olympics were marred by tragedy. The terrorist group “Black September” had infiltrated the Olympic village and murdered 11 Israeli Athletes. So what happened to Jim Ryun seems extremely trivial by comparison. 

But it did happen, and it did deny Ryun his last opportunity for Gold Medal. He was tripped and knocked down during the first qualifying heat of the 1500, and couldn’t recover. The USOC filed an appeal, and though the International Olympic Committee admitted that Ryun had been fouled, they refused to reinstate him into the competition. “You know Jim we have never reinstated a runner before. Why don’t you come back in four years and try again.” His last chance for Gold was dashed. Jim had become a Christian on May 18, 1972. Therefore he could no longer justify taking money under the table and saying he was a Christian (amateurism was still an ideal though not the reality in the Olympics). His days as an amateur athlete were over, so 1972 would be his last Olympics. His running ended completely in 1974.

With his career over, he and his family opened a running camp for high school aged runners. He was a motivational speaker for Christian Youth groups. Then in 1996 he was asked to run for Congress from Kansas’ 2nd district. He won a close race with 52% of the vote. He would serve 10 years in Washington, compiling one of the most conservative voting records in the House of Representatives. In 2006 he lost his bid for a 6th term in a major upset with only 47% of the vote.  

Since, he has co-authored three books with his sons Ned and Drew. He has been a strong advocate of bringing back the Mile as a premier event, and continues to speak about his Christian beliefs. 

What kind of impact has Jim Ryun left the sporting world? ESPN recently named him the number one high school athlete of all time. Beating out the likes of Tiger Woods and LeBron James. He’s still the last American to hold both the Mile and 1500 World Record. But Jim himself would emphasize that his greatest achievement is bringing people closer to Christ.  

Jim Ryun was much more than just a great athlete. 

Enjoyed this read?

You can check out more historical sports stories at our Stories You Should Know page.

Look at our history of the breaking of the 4-minute mile here and the prestige the mile used to have.

You can also read about Eric Liddle, another Christian athlete who put God above sports but was a tool in the Lords work.

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