Jim Ryun was the first high school runner to break the four-minute mile as a junior at Wichita High School East in Wichita, Kan. Then as a senior, he ran 3:55.3—a mark that stood for 36 years. ESPN has also rated him the number-one high school athlete of all time, beating out Tiger Woods and LeBron James. The three-time Olympian (1964, 1968 and 1972) and silver medalist at the 1,500-meters came on “The Competitors” radio show recently to talk about his unbelievable athletic career before becoming a United States congressman.
Listen to the full interview on competitorradio.com.
Jim, you became such a big star so young—what inspired you to run in the first place?
I’m probably going to burst everybody’s bubble, but it’s just because I couldn’t do anything else. When you’re cut from the church baseball team, the junior high basketball team, and you can’t make the junior high track and field team…
I’d go to bed at night and I’d say, “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.” I found myself trying out for the cross-country team and running two miles even though I’d never run that distance before. All of a sudden, I made the team, I got a letter jacket, and I started thinking there’s a girlfriend behind the letter jacket. But that’s how it all began. It really wasn’t because it was my first love. It was more a matter of that’s where I had the success, which was hard at first, because I felt people were invading my privacy. But on the other hand, I was enjoying it and wanted to share it with everyone.
No high school runner had ever broken four minutes for the mile. Was that something you and your coach thought about? How did it come about?
My high school coach, Bob Timmons, always saved a seat at the front of the bus and had each of his athletes come up and talk about their performance that day. After my fourth race, we were riding the bus from Kansas City back to Wichita. When my turn came to sit beside him, he said, “Jim, you ran a good race.” When you’re on a large team and the coach knows your first name, that alone is an accomplishment. I had just run a 4:21 mile and he said, “I think you can run faster. How fast do you think you can run?” Well, I was thinking a 4:18, which, as a sophomore in 1962 on a cinder track in Kansas wasn’t bad.
“I think you can be the school record holder,” the coach told me. The school record at the time was 4:08 and that was held by Archie San Romani. While he still had my attention, he said, “I think you can do what no other high school boy has ever done before. I think you can be the first to run under four minutes.” I’m just sitting there stunned, not knowing what that really meant. After all, it was only my fourth race. Coach Timmons really planted that idea, and then it became a team effort from that point on. In fact, we thought it would happen when I was a senior, but it happened when I was a junior in June of 1964.
What was your training like back then?
Coach Timmons was primarily a swim coach who took a lot of his principles and converted them into track, middle-distance and distance running. Nowadays, we’ll say that we overtrained back then. But we had a lot of success and some great teams. We were running maybe 50 or 60 miles a week, and they were pretty high-quality miles. We would run a lot of repeat quarters. One of the workouts was 40 times a quarter mile; 10 miles total, and we’d average 69 seconds a quarter in blocks of 10. It was a pretty good workout. When I said that God gave me some wonderful talent, he really did. Although at that time, I still couldn’t believe it was happening to me.
In 1964 you went to the Olympics—and you were only a high-schooler. What was that like?
I had been running fourth all summer behind Dyrol Burleson, Tom O’Hara and Jim Grelle. I was fourth in most races and just couldn’t quite make third. I got to the final race at the Olympic Trials and the pace was pretty steady. When we got down to about 300 yards to go, everyone just took off. I thought, “Oh wow, I’m in trouble,” because I wasn’t known as a great sprinter at that point. With about 110 yards to go, in fifth place, I thought, “Well, I guess I’ll go back to school and finish my senior year.” All of a sudden I remembered all the things that Coach Timmons had taught me and I prayed. After that, I relaxed a little bit and began lifting and sprinting. I found myself accelerating and passing Archie San Romani and then finally Jim Grelle, leaning at the finish line. I made the Olympic team. I was the most surprised guy out there. While my classmates where studying about the Tokyo Olympics, I was competing in the Olympic Games. It was like a dream; it was so hard to believe. But I had the great honor of living it.
Were you able to go to the ceremonies and really get the Olympic experience?
You might get a laugh out of this… I went to the opening ceremonies with some more senior athletes and they all took along newspapers, so I reluctantly took some along too, not knowing exactly why they were doing it. Well, as soon as most of the ceremony was through, all of a sudden doves were let loose. Everybody took out their sheets of newspaper and put them over their heads, so I did the same thing. Then I realized why they were doing it; because, well, that doesn’t look very good on your Olympic jacket. That’s the advantage of being around more experienced athletes.
How did you prepare for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City? Did you train at altitude?
We started training at altitude a couple years before, trying to adjust. We worked with a very well-known exercise physiologist, Dr. Jack Daniels. Dr. Daniels began working with us back in 1966 trying to prepare us for altitude. But what we realized after the Olympic Games is that you can’t really adjust to altitude unless you’ve lived there for 25 years or were born there. You can make some acclimations, but the advantage is huge for athletes who live in altitude. Before going to Mexico City, I attempted to run a three-quarters-of-a-mile time trial, at a similar altitude, under three minutes. I could never make it happen. We did everything almost to the extent of tying a rope to me and having a car pull me. But as the Olympics unfolded, I went by three-quarters faster than I had ever run at altitude, and I came back with a silver medal. So I guess altitude is a real funny element.
What time did you think you needed to run to win that 1,500?
I thought that if I ran below 3:40, maybe 3:39, that that would be the winning time. But, of course, Kip Keino ran 3:34 and I was 3:37. It was quite a fast race. Dr. Daniels helped me with everything going into Mexico City; and I think he would say the same thing, that it was one of the best races I’d ever run. There wasn’t anything I could have done differently. I’m honored to have won a silver medal, and it is still one of the highest achievements of my life.
In 1972 you went to Munich—tell us about that Olympics.
That was an interesting experience for me, partly because I fell but mostly because of what happened afterwards. It was the first round of competition. There was a collision and three of us fell, putting us out of the Games. These days, they would have advanced us and then, if we didn’t advance to the next round, we’d be out anyway. I embraced my wife Ann and we said a simple prayer, “Dear God, what do we do now? This isn’t what we expected.”
All the Olympic coaches had disappeared; they weren’t ready to help with my petition for reinstatement. So I went by the ABC booth, thinking a friend of mine, an attorney, could help. We went in and I asked for Howard Cosell. Howard sat me down and helped me write out a petition for reinstatement. We submitted it to the Olympic Committee and they met with my coach and me the next day and said, “Well, it’s unfortunate what happened to you. Why don’t you come back in four years and try again.” I wanted to reach over and clobber the guy because… four years of what? Training and sweat and everything else to maybe have the same thing happen when he could just reinstate me right now? That’s the way it was… you live with the good, the bad, and sometimes the ugly.
Did you ever see politics as something you would get into?
I really didn’t. In fact, the two things I didn’t ever want to do were coach and be in the political arena. I ended up doing both.
As a high schooler running against the Russians in Moscow and Kiev, I came back to this country with a greater appreciation for it. So my thought then was that perhaps someday—never dreaming that I would serve as a congressman from Kansas—that maybe I could help and in some way make this country a little bit better by being involved in the political process. Then in 1996, I was helping to carry the Olympic torch across Kansas. I carried it in Kansas City and then in Lawrence and Wichita. Congressman Todd Tiahrt from Wichita said, “You know, the seat in the second district has opened up. Why don’t you run for Congress?”