By RJ Walters / For The Jackson Citizen Patriot
Arguably the greatest high school athlete in American history, Jim Ryun engaged several hundred people at Hillsdale College’s Phillips Auditorium Sunday night.
But instead of focusing on his awe-inspiring athletic achievements — including a silver medal from the 1968 Olympics and being named the 1966 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year — the 63-year old emphasized how failures and his faith have made him the man he is today.
Hillsdale College track coach Bill Lundberg attended the same high school as Ryun before attending Ryun’s Alma matter Kansas to compete as a runner.
Over the years the two have forged a close friendship working at track and cross country camps together with a focus on educating and influencing young athletes.
Considering Ryun’s experience as not only a self-proclaimed man of God and historically significant athlete, but also as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (R-Kan.) who represented conservatives for 10 years, he was an ideal person to invite to the college according Lundberg.
“He is the all-time great as far as the Kansas Jayhawks — not just in track and field, but in all athletics. But there is so much more to Jim Ryun than sports,” he said. “I have always looked up to him and he is an incredible man of character, dignity, family and faith.”
After the presentation started out with a showing of Ryun’s 3:51.3 mile in 1966, a new world record at the time, the first high school runner to ever break the 4:00 barrier told a story that many people can relate to.
Ryun was benched on his church league baseball team, cut from the junior high basketball squad and moved from sprinting to hurdling to pole-vaulting within weeks when he tried track.
Only when he counted on a higher authority did things come into clear focus.
“One night I was at home and I just asked God for some sort of direction in my life, especially regarding sports, because things just weren’t working out,” he said. “I thought maybe sports just weren’t for me and there were other things in store.”
As a high school freshman the next year he decided to attend a cross country workout on a whim. He had never ran more than a quarter of a mile in his life, but he didn’t want to let on any sort of weakness, so he finished a six-mile session with much more experienced runners.
Ryun said he could hardly get out of bed the next morning and he endured six weeks of shin splints, but “something beyond his control” kept him going and his teammates continued to encourage him.
Several months later he finished sixth at the cross country state finals and by his junior year he qualified for the Olympics in Tokyo where he made it to the semifinals in the 1500 meters.
In 2003 ESPN named him the “best high school athlete ever”, ahead of Tiger Woods and LeBron James
“I believe each person has a calling, but it’s not always an easy thing,” Ryun said. “Sometimes doors close and you run into them a few times, but I believe God opens other doors that we would never find otherwise.”
During his presentation Ryun also talked about a major disappointment at the 1972 Olympics, where he was favored to win gold in the 1500m before he was knocked unconscious by a foul from a competitor in the first round.
Ryun pleaded with an official to reinstate him into the field due to the violation, but it never happened.
Later that year he and his wife Anne committed their lives to Christ, and Ryun said slowly his bitterness toward the official disappeared.
“We were visiting the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and on a JumboTron at the L.A. Colliseum I saw the official from the 1972 games. He was about 30 feet tall obviously and I recognized him immediately, but I realized I had forgiven him in my heart and it felt good,” Ryun said. “Be quick to forgive, forgive often and don’t let anything take over your life.”
Ryun answered questions from the crowd for nearly half an hour Sunday and the impact of his speech resonated afterward, as he signed copies of his book “The Courage to Run.”
“I think the thing that stands out the most is that he’s more than just a runner. He’s a man of faith, he’s a man of principle and I think he’s parlayed that well into his political career. He’s just a very good person,” said Joel VanDerworp, a Hillsdale College senior who is captain of the Charger track team.
Also, you look back and look at his training logs and stuff like that and high school runners just don’t do that now. He was running 110, 120 mile weeks, he was lifting during interval session — what he did was incredible and crazy and his body withstood it and he ran fast.”