Ryun, James Ronald ("Jim")

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RYUN, James Ronald ("Jim")

(b. 29 April 1947 in Wichita, Kansas), track and field runner who, after becoming the first high school runner to break the four-minute mile in 1964, emerged as the greatest middle-distance runner in the history of the sport during a decade notable for producing great running stars.

Ryun was the middle child born to Gerald Ryun, an aircraft manufacturer parts inspector, and Wilma Strutton, a department store clerk; he had an older brother and younger sister. Ryun had a strict religious upbringing, as his parents were members of the Church of Christ, which had many social taboos, including dancing, drinking, and smoking. When Ryun was an infant, a high fever permanently damaged his inner ear, leaving him with only 50 percent of his hearing and causing him to suffer from occasional dizziness and equilibrium problems. He also suffered from asthma. Throughout grade school, the thin and sickly Ryun showed no gift for any athletic endeavor.

When Ryun entered Wichita East High School as a sophomore in the fall of 1962, the school's track and cross-country coach Bob Timmons encouraged him to go out for cross-country, the activity where athletes who are not talented in team sports tend to gravitate. His surprise sixth-place finish in the state cross-country meet helped Wichita East win the state team title. Coach Timmons saw in Ryun's early performances the possibility that he could be the first high schooler to break four minutes in the mile, and he put Ryun through a grueling, 100-mile-a-week training regimen with that aim in mind. By the end of the summer of 1963, Ryun had broken national sophomore records for the 880-yard, 1-mile, and 2-mile races, and he was being hailed as the brightest running prospect in the nation. In the fall of 1963, he won the state high school cross-country championship. During these years, Ryun developed his classic race strategy of running behind the pack for most of the race, and then, with 200 to 300 yards to go, suddenly spurting to the front with an amazing burst of speed.

In June 1964, seventeen-year-old Ryun became the first schoolboy runner to break four minutes, with a time of three minutes, fifty-nine seconds (3:59) at the Compton Invitational. In competition against the best of his peers in the United States, he finished in eighth place. That eight runners broke four minutes stunned the country, but no achievement was more electrifying than that of Ryun, whose awkward gait and side-to-side, flopping head belied the possibility of racing greatness. Later in the year Ryun qualified in the Olympic Trials in the 1,500-meter run for the Tokyo Olympics. However, at Tokyo a severe cold slowed him, and he failed to reach the finals.

Coach Timmons moved to the University of Kansas to coach track in the fall of 1964, at the end of Ryun's junior year, and was replaced by J. D. Edmiston. Despite the change in coach, Ryun's running career continued spiraling upward. In the state high school cross-country championship, Ryun again led Wichita East to the state title, setting a course record of nine minutes, eight seconds. In the spring, Ryun won his third consecutive state high school one-mile championship, setting the national high school record of 3:58.3. After graduating from high school in 1965, eighteen-year-old Ryun entered a meet in San Diego in the one-mile event against Olympic champion Peter Snell from New Zealand. Ryun defeated Snell while running the distance in 3:55.3, setting a record for a schoolboy that lasted thirty-six years. (Ryun's record was finally surpassed in 2001, when Alan Webb, of South Lakes High School in Reston, Virginia, ran the mile in 3:53.43.)

After high school, Ryun went to the University of Kansas, where Timmons had advanced to the position of head track coach. The spring 1966 track season was an extraordinary one for the freshman. On 13 May, in the Coliseum Relays in Los Angeles, Ryun set a new U.S. record in the two-mile event with a time of 8:25.2. Then on 10 June, in Terre Haute, Indiana, he set a world record in the 880 yards of 1:44.9; and finally in July, in Berkeley, California, he set a new world record in the mile run, at 3:51.3. As of September 2002, he was still the youngest runner ever to hold the world record in this event. At the end of this spectacular year, the nineteen-year-old Ryun was the world record holder in three events. He capped his achievements by winning the Amateur Athletic Union's Sullivan Award as the nation's best amateur athlete and the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award, the youngest person ever to receive this accolade.

In 1967, Ryun lowered his world record in the mile to 3:51.1 at the national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) meet on 23 June 1967 when he won his third consecutive AAU title in the event. On 9 July, in the U.S. versus the Commonwealth meet, Ryun out-kicked his toughest rival in the event, Kipchoge Keino of Kenya, to set a new world record of 3:33.1 in the 1,500-meter race.

In the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Ryun faced two obstacles going into the competition. First, his training had been hampered by a siege of mononucleosis. The second challenge was one faced by all the athletes accustomed to low altitudes; they had to compete in a high altitude where the thin air can cause severe oxygen deprivation. Nonetheless, Ryun won a Silver Medal, losing only to Keino, who had grown up in the Kenyan highlands.

On 25 January 1969, shortly before graduating from Kansas University, Ryun married Anne Snider; they had four children. Ryun finished out his senior season at Kansas, attempting to help the school win the 1969 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship. He lost the mile run to Marty Liquori, however, the first mile run Ryun had lost in four years, and Kansas missed the title by a few points. Nonetheless, while at Kansas, Ryun helped lead the school to national indoor track titles in 1966 and 1969, while winning five individual collegiate titles, four of them indoors.

Ryun was losing his competitive fire in 1969, and in a national AAU meet that year he stepped off the track in the middle of a race and announced his retirement from the sport. In 1971, however, he returned to running to prepare for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, but his medal hopes were dashed when he fell in a semifinal race. From 1973 to 1976 Ryun competed on the professional track circuit. In 1980 he was elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. Ryun entered politics in 1996, winning election as a Republican from Kansas's Second Congressional District.

The decade's fabulous sports story of the ungainly, unprepossessing Ryun, who through incredible grit and determination beat the greatest runners in the world in a spate of world-record performances, cut through the din of a tumultuous era of social upheaval. His achievements gave the United States something positive to cheer about, and provided not only the country but also the world with an authentic athletic hero.

Although it overlooks many important races, Ryun tells the story of his running career and his born-again Christian conversion in his autobiography, In Quest of Gold: The Jim Ryun Story (1984). Cordner Nelson, The Jim Ryun Story (1967), was the first biography of Ryun and provides a detailed examination of his track career up to 1967.

Robert Pruter