Somewhere, sitting on a basketball team’s bench or listed way down on a football squad’s depth chart, or standing in front of a gymnasium door searching in vain for his name on the posted final roster is a man who, had he just headed out to the track to start a life of turning left, could have become a celebrated champion.
That is as good an explanation as any as to why June 23 will mark the 50-year anniversary of the last time an American broke the world record in the mile.
That someone, of course, was Jim Ryun, who shaved two-tenths of a second off of his world record in Bakersfield, Calif., when he ran the final lap in a blistering 53.5 final lap of a 3:51.1 mile, one year after setting the record in Berkeley, Calif. Ryun was the world-record holder for nearly nine years.
Seven men from five countries have broken it since: Filbert Bayi (Tanzania), John Walker (New Zealand), Sebastiona Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram (United Kingdom), Noureddine Morceli (Algeria) and Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco), who holds the record of 3:43.13, set July 7, 1999, in Rome.
Ryun was just 17 when he became the first high school runner to break the four-minute barrier (3:59.0), 18 when he set the American record (3:55.3, a high school record that stood for 36 years until Alan Webb broke it), 19 when he set the world record (3:51.3), 20 when he bettered it and 21 when he won the silver medal in the 1,500 meters at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, where Kenya's Kip Keino won the gold.
But anyone who thinks that Ryun encountering so much so early means every jock envied his talent from the moment he strutted onto the field at recess and dominated, doesn’t know his story.
“If I would have made the church baseball team, I could have been an average baseball player,” said Ryun, in town for the 90th Kansas Relays. “Or if I had made the junior high basketball team, I could have been an average basketball player. Coach (Bob) Timmons had other plans for me.”
The late Timmons coached Ryun at Wichita East High and at the University of Kansas.
“My speed was hidden and it came out through training,” Ryun said.
Even in junior high, Ryun said, he did not stand out, and in fact had to keep searching to find an event. He wasn’t selected to compete in the 50-yard dash, so he tried the hurdles, wasn’t very good at that and moved on to the high jump and then the pole vault. That’s how he kept a spot on the team, he said, by always finding another event to try out for when the coach of the last one didn’t want him.
“It was coach Timmons and God’s gift,” Ryun said.
“Coach Timmons would reach way down in our souls, find these amazing talents and pull them out."
Ryun’s quick rise from obscurity to world-record holder is one he tells at his Jim Ryun running Camps (ryunrunning.com), held at three different locations across the country. He also shows a tape of his race from 50 years ago, with legendary late broadcaster Jim McKay on the call for ABC’s "Wide World of Sports."
Unlike the first time Ryun set the world record, his performance, which can be viewed on Youtube, wasn’t carefully scripted. He didn’t use a rabbit or set out to break the record. Seven runners, including Marty Liquori, then 17 and then referred to as “Martin,” broke the 4-minute barrier in the AAU race.
Ryun jumped to the lead immediately and never surrendered it, a tactic that took many by surprise and one that he said was necessitated by him starting the race at an inside lane.
“As I look back, it was one of the most relaxed, easiest races of my life,” Ryun said.
He shares that message with campers: “If you want to run fast, you have to learn how to relax.”
Ryun would like to see another American break the record, even if it’s not someone from his alma mater.
Since Finland’s Paavo Nurmi wrested the world record from American Norman Taber on Aug. 23, 1923, just two Americans have held the world record in the mile, and they share an alma mater.
KU’s Glenn Cunningham ran a 4:06.8 on June 16, 1934, and held the world record for three years. Wes Santee battled John Landy of Australia and Great Britain’s Roger Bannister in the race to become the first sub-4 miler, and Bannister prevailed, running 3:59.4 on May 6, 1954. Santee’s best mile was 4:00.5.
After Kansas surrendered its place as mile capital of the world, Great Britain ruled the event.
Steve Scott came the closest to bringing the record back to America, clocking a 3:47.69 in 1982, when Coe held the record at 3:47.33.
Why aren’t American milers as competitive as decades ago?
“I can’t answer that one,” Ryun said. “That’s been a puzzle for me as well.”
Ryun’s wife, Anne, said she thought American athletes had too many options, which triggered another theory from Jim.
“Distance running requires a lot of hard work and patience,” Ryun said. “Middle-distance runners take four, five, six, seven years to develop. In this society, we want something instantaneous, but there’s still an enormous talent pool. We could get back there again.”