The greatest miler in American track history turns 69 today.
James Donald Ryun was born in Wichita, Kansas, on this date in 1947. After being cut from the church baseball team and junior high basketball team, Ryun turned to running. “I’d go home 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 rather than later, because it’s not really going very well.” He tried out for the cross-country team at Wichita East High School, running two miles for the first time in his life, and made the team. “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.” After winning the state championship in the mile as a sophomore, Ryun became the first high school athlete to run a mile in under four minutes, posting a time of 3:59.0 at the Compton Relays in May 1964. Later that year, the 17-year-old Kansan secured a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in the 1,500 meters, advancing to the semi-finals in the Tokyo Games. As a high school senior, he beat Olympic champion Peter Snell at an AAU meet and later ran 3:55.3 to set a high school record in the one mile run that stood for 36 years.
Upon graduation, Ryun accepted a track scholarship to the University of Kansas where, as a 19-year-old freshman, the set world records in the mile [3:51.3] and the half-mile [1:44.9]. In 1966, he received the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete, was named Athlete of the Year by ABC’s Wide World of Sports and Track & Field News and became the youngest recipient of Sports Illustrated magazine’s “Sportsman of the Year” award. The following year, he lowered his world record in the mile to 3:51.1 and became the first runner to be named Track & Field News Athlete of the Year two years in a row. At the Mexico City Summer Games in 1968, Ryun ran the 1,500 meters in an astonishing 3:37.8 but finished second to Kip Keino, who ran 3:34.9 to set a new Olympic record that would stand for 16 years. “We had thought that 3:39 would win and I ran under that. I considered it like winning the gold medal.” Ryun was criticized for letting his nation down. “I didn’t get any credit for running my best and no one seemed to realize that Keino had performed brilliantly.” Four years later, he was tripped and fell during during a 1,500 meter qualifying heat in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Although the International Olympic Committee acknowledged that a foul had occurred, U.S. appeals to have Ryun reinstated were denied by the IOC. Ryun turned pro after 1972, running for two years on the International Track Association circuit.
Jim Ryun ran the mile in under four minutes five times during his high school career, three more than any schoolboy in history. He was the first high schooler to run a sub-four minute mile and is the last American to hold the world record in the one-mile run. Mr. Ryun broke the American mile record four times—once as a high school senior, twice as a college freshman and once as a sophomore at KU. He still holds American junior [19 and under] records at 800 yards, 800 meters, 1,500 meters and two miles, all of which were established before 1966. Ryun qualified for the Olympic team at 17 and remains the youngest male track athlete to qualify for the Olympic Games. In a sport where athletes reach their prime in their late 20s, Jim Ryun dominated as a teenager, having been voted Best Miler in the World by Track & Field News as a Wichita East High School senior. Ryun held the world mile record for nine years and had the American mark for 14. ESPN.com voted him the best prep athlete of all time, ahead of Tiger Woods and LeBron James [Daily Dose, December 30]. Jim Ryun competed in three Olympic Games [1964, 1968, 1972] before serving for eleven years in the United States House of Representatives from Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District. In 1980, he was inducted into the National Track Hall of Fame and in 2003 was voted to the National Distance Running Hall of Fame.