Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

RYUN, JIM (b. 1947)

James Ronald Ryun was the world's fastest miler in the mid-1960s. Born on April 29, 1947, Ryun grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and began running as a gangly freshman at East High School. Ryun became the first high school runner to break four minutes in the mile, running 3:59.0 in 1964 as a seventeen-year-old. Later that year, Ryun finished third in the U.S. Olympic 1500-meter trials and competed in the Tokyo Olympics, advancing to the semifinals.

In 1965 Ryun ran 3:58.3 to win the Kansas state meet, then lowered his high school record to 3:56.8 when he finished second to New Zealand's Olympic champion and world record holder Peter Snell in Bakersfield, California. Two weeks later, at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championship in San Diego, Ryun unleashed a powerful sprint during the last lap that carried him past Snell to finish in 3:55.3 and win his first of three straight national titles. Not only did the eighteen-yearold Ryun improve on his high school record, but he also shaved a tenth of a second off Jim Greelle's American record.

Following in the footsteps of world-class milers Glenn Cunningham and Wes Santee, Ryun matriculated to the University of Kansas for his collegiate career. His high school coach, Bob Timmons, joined Ryun in Lawrence and directed a challenging interval-training program based on running numerous repeat quarter miles. This intense training produced spectacular results: Ryun broke the world record for the half mile on June 10, 1966, running a time of 1:44.9 in Terre Haute, Indiana. Five weeks later, on July 17, Ryun claimed the world mile record in Berkeley, California, with a stunning 3:51.3 that trimmed 2.3 seconds off Michael Jazy's mark. Sports Illustrated honored Ryun as the sportsman of the year in 1966, and he was also recognized by the Sullivan Award as the top U.S. amateur athlete.

On June 23, 1967, Ryun lowered his mile world record to 3:51.1 in Bakersfield, California, with superb demonstration of his sit and kick strategy, as he patiently ran in the pack before sprinting his final quarter-mile lap in 52.5 seconds. Two weeks later, he broke the world record for 1500 meters, clocking 3:33.1 in Los Angeles.

Despite being the world's fastest middle-distance runner, Ryun was bettered by the masterful Kenyan Kip Keino in the 1968 Olympic 1500-meter race in Mexico City. An Olympic silver medal was little consolation. After a disappointing start to the 1969 season, the twenty-two-year-old Ryun succumbed to the stresses of adolescent stardom and intensive training and racing and announced his retirement. Three years later, Ryun came out of retirement for another run at an Olympic gold medal. He was quick to regain form, qualifying for the U.S. 1500-meter team. Ryun's Olympic misfortunes continued, however, when a midrace collision sent him sprawling to the Munich track in the semifinals. The ill-fated record holder pounding the track in frustration proved to be the final scene of his amateur career.

A measure of Ryun's achievements can be found in the longevity of some of his records. His world record in the mile lasted almost eight years, until Tanzanian Filbert Bayi ran 3:51.0 in 1975, shaving a mere tenth of a second off Ryun's mark. At the end of the twentieth century, Ryun still held all four middle-distance American junior records for athletes under twenty years of age, and his 3:55.8 high school record was still three seconds faster than any other American prep had run. It was finally bettered in 2001.

Two decades later, Jim was back running, this time for political office. Running as a conservative Republican in Kansas's Second District, Ryun was elected to Congress in 1996 and reelected in 1998 and 2000.

Sean Hartnett University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

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