January 23, 2012

Jim Ryun Found his Sport and Made History

This week a man came to visit Norcross and spoke to some area coaches.  I didn't know who he was, but Scott did.  Scott got all excited to hear his name:  Jim Ryun.  That's because Jim did something so unusual in the running world in 1965 that inspires people even today.  

Jim was a normal kid growing up in Wichita, Kansas.  Well, except for his hearing loss.  At 4 years old, he had the measles.  It destroyed 50% of his hearing and messed up his equilibrium.  Jim said,  "As a child, I wanted to enter into the classroom discussion. But sometimes, I might hear the question inaccurately and give the wrong answer. After a while, your fellow classmates begin to think you're basically a dummy. When you can't hear, you tend to withdraw."  

His hearing loss may have affected his athletic abilities.  He was cut from his Church baseball team and his Junior High school Basketball team.  He was even cut from his Track and Field teams.  After all of that disappointment, I think I'd quit.  But Jim kept trying.  He joined the Cross Country team and slowly worked up from average to becoming a winner.  After 5 months on the team, Jim won a mile race, the second competitive one he'd ever ran.    

After running in just 4 competitive races, Jim's Coach Bob Timmons saw potential.  About ten years earlier, a man named Roger Bannister ran a mile in less than 4 minutes.  This feat astounded the world.  Experts had previously thought that the human body could not do it; it was simply physically impossible.  But Englishman Roger Bannister did it in 1954, then others did too.  They were all professional athletes, Olympic quality runners with the best equipment and finest coaches around.  And they were extremely proud of this achievement.

Well, Bob Timmons had the idea that Jim could run a mile in less than 4 minutes too.  And it would be the first time that a high school kid had done it.  And the first time any American had done it.  When he told Jim of this goal, Jim was surprised.  He had only run 4 races and had failed at so many other sports.  Could he really do it?   Coach Timmons recalled, "I took Jim aside and told him that eventually he would be a four-minute miler, and that I hoped he would be the first high school boy to break four minutes. But you don't just happen to reach a great goal. You plan, you work. From that second meet on, I urged Jim to think not like a high school sophomore but like a four-minute miler."

Coach Timmons started Jim on a difficult training regiment.  Jim delivered newspapers at 5 am each morning, then came home to lace up his running shoes.  He'd run 6 miles through the streets of Wichita, then head to school.  After school, he trained with Coach Timmons in wind sprints to help him with his weakness of tiring in the last part of the mile race.  Jim hated running alone in the rain or snow on those dark early mornings.  He felt like a freak.  But he kept at it, feeling that he really could reach his goal.  

After months of training, Jim flew to California to run in the Compton Invitational in June 1964.  There he was running against Roger Bannister and a host of other Olympic athletes.  He recalled, "I looked around and asked myself, what am I doing here?"  He came in 8th place, but his time was 3:59.  He did it!  He was only a 17 year old Junior in High School!  Suddenly he was among the ranks of Olympic quality athletes.  The winner of that race, Dyrol Burlsen said, "There was nothing unusual about my victory. The entire story was back in eighth place. There is simply no way to imagine how good Jim Ryun is or how far he will go after he becomes an adult. What he did was more significant than Roger Bannister's first mile under four minutes."  

In 1965 as a High School Senior, Jim broke the 4 minute mile three more times.  The first time he ran in the Kansas State High School Championship meet against all High School students.  He won by a long lead in 3:58.3 minutes, and this record still stands as the fastest mile in a race among only High School students.  The next race, he came in at 3:58.1; the third was the Compton Invitational again in California.  He had just graduated from High School, 18 years old, and was again running against Olympic-quality athletes.  In fact, he was running against the Olympic Champion, New Zealander Peter Snell.  Jim finished second to Snell with a time of 3:56.8 minutes.

It was just a few weeks later that Jim beat Peter Snell and broke the world record.  It was the AAU Championships in San Diego, California on June 27, 1965.  Jim, an 18 year old recent High School graduate had beaten the Olympic champion!  He ran that race in 3:55.3 minutes, a record that stood until just a few years ago.

Jim went on to win a lot more races and win all kinds of accolades for his running prowess.  He won Track and Field's Athlete of the Year award two years in a row 1966-1967.  He broke the world record for the mile 4 times; once as a High School Senior (3:55.3), twice as a College Freshman and once more as a College Sophomore.  He competed in 3 Olympic games: 1964 (when he didn't make finals); 1968, when he won Silver in the 1500 meter run; and 1972 when he was tripped and eliminated.  He's had his photo on the cover of Sports Illustrated 7 times! 

Today Jim helps hearing impaired children obtain hearing aids.  And he speaks to students in schools for the deaf.  He also speaks publickly to Coaches and urges them to expect a lot out of their athletes, as Jim credits Coach Timmons for much of his success as a runner.  During his visit to Atlanta last week, he told the coaches, "You don't want to rescue your athletes from difficulties.  These are easier lessons now than they are as an adult.  Don't be afraid to challenge them to do something."  He recognized that Coach Timmons and others who encouraged him along the way were gifts that God gave him.  "A lot of people are afraid of failure, but what they really are is afraid of success.  Don't be afraid to dream big."

Jim didn't let his hearing loss prevent him from succeeding as an athlete.  He just had to find the right sport.  He followed the training regiment of his Coach and worked hard to become the winner that he is today.  He did something that many thought was impossible through a combination of hard work, determination and good advice.  That recipe for success applies to many endeavors!


Beitzel, Ben.  “Mile Barrier-Breaker Ryun Dares Coaches to ‘Dream Big.”  Gwinnett Daily Post 14 Jan 2012: 4B. Print.
Brown, Gwilym S.  “A Very Fast Crowd at the Tape”  Sports Illustrated 15 June 1964: n. page. Web. 21 Jan 2012.
 “The Magic Miler” Faith Baptist Church Web. 21 Jan 2012.
Michalik, Tom.  “Jim Ryun, One of the Best Two High School Runners Ever” Randolph College.edu.  Web. 21 Jan 2012.
O’Leary, Tom.  “A Kansas Boy with a Man-size Task”  Sports Illustrated 14 Sept 14 1964: n. page. Web. 21 Jan 2012.
Watch Jim run the famous AAU Championship when he won against Olympic Champion Peter Snell 27 June 1965 on UTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ots91-yh_o (or just search his name on Utube.)

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