Jewish World Review Sept. 30, 1999 /20 Tishrei, 5760
of faith, grace, and guts
The good news comes courtesy of sports network ESPN, which honored its top five "Congressional Athletes of the Century" on Capitol Hill this week. A panel of journalists and sports figures ranked basketball star/U.S. Senator/Democrat presidential candidate Bill Bradley first. But the remaining honorees all hail from right field:
Olympic decathlon gold medalist/GOP congressman Bob Mathias placed second. Baseball Hall-of-Famer/GOP Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky, Buffalo Bills quarterback/GOP congressman Jack Kemp, and Seattle Seahawks receiver/GOP congressman Steve Largent round out the top spots.
Now the bad news: ESPN's judging panel made an unforgivable omission. They snubbed the indefatigable Jim Ryun.
A two-term Republican congressman from Kansas, Ryun raced to worldwide fame in the 1960s. Kodachrome images of Ryun -- chest forward, head tilted, mouth agape, lanky arms and sinewy legs in balletic flight -- still stir the hearts of running fans young and old. "He's a legend," enthused 16-year-old Alan Webb, a Reston, Va. runner who is gunning for Ryun's mile records.
"When Jim Ryun set the world mile record, he was the best in the whole world for all of human history," says Tom Michalik, a sports fan and physics professor at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va. "Temporary NFL fame doesn't even come close to Jim's accomplishment."
Jon Hendershott, associate editor of Track and Field News in Mountain View, Calif., agrees. Ryun "set the standards by which generations of runners still measure themselves today."
Ryun was the first high-school runner in the U.S. to break the four-minute mile barrier. In his senior year, he ran 3:55.3 - an American high school record set in 1965 that still stands today. As a University of Kansas sophomore, he shattered the world record in 1966, running 3:51.3. His subsequent record of 3:51.1 at Bakersfield, Calif., stood for eight years.
As a schoolboy in Wichita, Ryun rose every morning at 4:30 am to deliver newspapers over a 12-block route. (What would all the child sleep experts and fretful politicians trying to legislate later school openings say about that?) Then, in blistering heat or blinding blizzards, the teen-age Ryun would put on his sneakers and pound alone through six miles of Kansas wheatlands. After school, he'd run another six miles on the track.
Ryun, the son of a Boeing toolmaker, wasn't a born runner. He suffered partial hearing loss and almost died of peritonitis as a child. He was initially spurned by his track coach. A self-professed nerd, Ryun didn't smoke, drink, or party. Instead, he attended church twice a week and trained up to 120 miles a week. "Jim is a tryer - in everything he does," his coach told Newsweek magazine in 1966.
Ryun's intense workout regimen was unheard of in the U.S. back then - and now. Despite all the technological advances in running gear and track surfaces, not to mention performance-enhancing substances, the best mile time by an American this year was three seconds slower than Ryun's world record more than three decades ago.
In an era of feel-your-pain poseurs and Prozac-induced ease, Jim Ryun's raw physical endurance and mental strength shine all the brighter. In victory, he demonstrated that rarest of character traits among today's athletic superstars: humility. And while he attributed his talents to God, Ryun never flaunted his religion in the impious manner of your typical fist-pumping, crucifix-wearing, NFL linebacker or Olympic sprinter who genuflects in front of the TV cameras after every win.
When Ryun tripped in the 1,500 meter qualifying heat at the Munich Olympics in 1972, it ended his dreams of a gold medal. He made no excuses and blamed no one. The experience strengthened his faith; he found fulfillment in family and public service. Ryun almost lost his first race for Congress in 1996 because he refused to run a negative campaign. Democrats shamelessly attacked him for writing an article with his wife endorsing the idea of courtship (involving church and family in their children's decision to marry).
"Athletics teaches you discipline, hard work. Politics takes those qualities and more," Ryun told Insight magazine recently. He won re-election last year by a 22-point margin.
Ryun's legacy is one of old-fashioned individual achievement in the pursuit
of excellence, something purely and distinctly American. The humble miler
from Kansas may not have made ESPN's list of top-five greatest
"Congressional Athletes of the Century." But Jim Ryun remains a role model
for the next millenium of men and women with the mettle to go the distance
09/27/99: Personal freedom going up in smoke