Courage and Motivation to Continue the Race…
The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” This famous catch-phrase from the Wide World of Sports commentators has been used throughout numerous sporting events and competitions. Both amateur and professional athletes know all too well that the difference of a split-second, a few inches, or a fall can result in a life-changing experience. Jim Ryun is one who knows firsthand. Acclaimed as the first high school athlete to run a mile under four minutes, this Olympian runner suffered a devastating event that occurred during one of his races and challenged his new-found faith. But Ryun’s actions and heart took him to a place of forgiveness and his athletic career as a three-time Olympian holding five world records found him gracing the pages of numerous newspapers, magazines, television features, and the cover of Sports Illustrated seven times.
His competitive spirit and desire to help others led him into a political career. Ryun served as a five-term U.S. Congressman spearheading campaigns and support for issues he felt needed a strong voice for the truth. His record reflects a bill he helped stop while on the Armed Services Committee that he notes would have turned military hospitals into abortion clinics as well. Today, Jim Ryun continues to inspire audiences as an author and speaker. Risen sat down with Ryun to talk about sports and politics, to family, faith and the journey he presses on.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Did you always have a passion for running?
Jim Ryun: It wasn’t what I wanted to do. In fact, I didn’t even think of running as a possible sport. In junior high, I was into the major sports like baseball and basketball. My first experience was to try out for the baseball team. I went from the outfield, to the infield, to the bench, and then I was cut. And that was the church baseball team! Next I was invited out for the junior high basketball team because I was tall for my age. Halfway through the first practice, the coach told me he wanted to meet me in his office afterwards. He asked me to turn in my jersey because he had seen enough and I was done. I went home that night and prayed, “Dear God, if you have a plan for my life, I’d really appreciate it if You’d show up and tell me what that is. And by the way, I’d also appreciate it if it was something in sports because that’s where I’d like to have my future.” I said that prayer every night for lots and lots of nights.
The last sport that I went out for was junior high track and field. By that time, I was worldly-wise and realized there was one coach and many events. So I began as a hurdler until I was cut there and then I became a sprinter. I was a sprinter until I got cut from that team and then I became a pole vaulter. I continued with that strategy for three years without ever being on a team! However, failure is a valuable teacher. If I hadn’t failed in those earlier sports efforts, I could have become a mediocre baseball or basketball player, but God had bigger plans. The experiences in our lives help us to understand where He wants us to go.
RM: Having failed in your earlier sports endeavors, at what age did you take up running?
JR: I was 15. It was 1962 and I was living in Wichita, Kansas. I went to a school orientation for all incoming sophomores. East High was a three-year high school. The various coaches of fall sports got up to pitch their respective sports, and with each one I said to myself, “Oh, I don’t want to do that.” The only other fall sport available was cross country. I was very naïve. I thought that was just a fall version of track and field, for which the longest distance was 440 yards, one lap around the track. I didn’t realize cross country was a distance of two miles, or eight laps around the track. Had I realized that, I might not have even shown up, but I was still at that point somewhat desperate to find my destiny. So I went out for the team. A hundred guys. We started out headed for a little park about a mile away, then we did some wind sprints and a few calisthenics. I had never even done a warm-up before that! Then we ran for the next 60 or 90 minutes around the park. That night, I was too tired even to eat dinner. I went to bed and the next morning I rolled out of bed and I couldn’t walk. I had to get up the stairs by going backwards. I told my mom I wasn’t going to do the cross country stuff anymore; it was just way too much. But God intervened. Over the course of the day, various classmates made encouraging comments to me about being at practice again that afternoon. Reluctantly I showed up. I was miserable, I was sore, and I had shin splints. I can’t explain what kept me going. It wasn’t just the allure of being on an athletic team, although that was part of it. I look back now and realize I was searching for camaraderie, for friendship. These guys were embracing me. I finally made the team, albeit as the last man on the C-team. But an amazing thing happened. The soreness began to diminish and I found myself going from last man on the C-team to #1 on Varsity in only about six weeks. I ended up running in the state meet, where I finished sixth. That was the beginning of an amazing journey.
If I hadn’t failed in those earlier sports efforts, I could have become a mediocre baseball or
basketball player, but God had bigger plans.
RM: Coach Bob Timmons gave the pitch at the orientation meeting and was your cross country coach not only that first year, but for many years to come. He said a remarkable thing to you while he and the team were on a bus returning from a cross country meet during your first season of running. What was that?
JR: After meets, on the way home on the bus, he’d invite the runners one by one to occupy the vacant seat next to his for what he called “Timmie Talks.” They were intended to challenge you, get you to think outside your comfort zone, and inspire you to do things you never before thought you could do. He was very successful at it. He coached cross country, swimming, and track and his teams were phenomenal, winning all the time. God put him in my path because he was able to take this tall, skinny, 145-pound kid who knew nothing about running and mold him into a runner. What he said to me that day on the bus was, “I think you could be the first high school boy to run a mile in under four minutes.” In less than two years that is exactly what happened! Looking back on it, I don’t think anyone else could have done what Timmie did.
RM: You were the first high schooler to break the four-minute mile. You competed in three Olympics; Tokyo Olympics in 1964 when you were still a junior in high school; again in Mexico City where you won the Silver Medal in the 1500; and at Munich in 1972. You held both American and World records at distances varying from 880 meters to two miles. One record stood for an incredible 36 years, despite huge technological advances that have generally enabled runners to run faster. Looking back, how have you seen God’s hand in such extraordinary achievements?
JR: It was unbelievable. The thing that caused me to understand the uniqueness of it all, and God’s grace, is that after my prayer, “Dear God, please show up and I’d really like Your plan to be in sports,” boy, did He show up. ESPN did a survey of athletes in the last century and I was selected the High School Athlete of the Century—over Tiger Woods and LeBron James. My events were back in the 1960’s. Just my simple prayer allowed God to show up in a big way.
Up until 1972, I would say that I was churched, but I was not a Christian. To put it another way, I had been taught religion, something that happens on Sundays, but the rest of my life, I lived however I wanted to. I had been taught rules, but not that there is a God who created the universe and created me and loves me. I hadn’t known that a relationship with Jesus Christ was possible. What the religion and rules approach did for me was to create a tremendously judgmental and condescending attitude. I didn’t understand the love of God, nor that He wants to be involved in our lives seven days a week, 24/7.
When I started racing as a junior in high school against the best in the world, I looked down the line at the start of the races. I knew enough to pray, and I did so before every race. But because I didn’t have a personal relationship with God, I thought I was all done after the prayer; I had done my “duty.”
The point I’m trying to make is that God speaks in different ways. Sometimes we try to spiritualize it too much.
RM: What was the prayer you’d say before your races?
JR: “Dear God, I’m here and I’m scared. Please help me.” That was pretty much it; very self-centered, but believe me, it was also very sincere. I had been running at that point maybe about a year and a half. I knew who these guys whom I was running against were—the best in the world. I’d read about them in the newspaper and magazines. Quite honestly, I didn’t have the credentials to be there.
I’m reflecting back to being in the Olympic trials, as a junior in high school, 100 yards to go. I was in fifth and only the top three would go on to the Olympics, and I was hurting. I thought, “All that work I put in over the summer, and it’s all coming to nothing. I’m not going to qualify, and I’ll be going home.” Just then, I believe God said, “Just relax. Just relax and start sprinting.” I did, and it happened. I went from fifth to fourth and at the finish line I leaned forward and just barely got third. I was going to the Tokyo Olympics! Sometimes we get the notion that there has to be some sort of super-spiritual experience to hear God’s voice. I look back on it now and I know it was God. Coach Timmons hadn’t ever told me to relax. Nobody had. The point I’m trying to make is that God speaks
in different ways. Sometimes we try to spiritualize it too much. A lot of times, He’ll say something very natural to us. When He does speak, I have learned to test it against the Bible.
RM: The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City took place at the highest elevation of any summer Games before or since. In what way was training for and competing in your second Olympic competition particularly difficult?
JR: Getting ready for the 1968 Olympics cost me enormously; emotionally, physically and spiritually. Altitude for a sea-level runner is deadly, there’s little oxygen. I had exercise-induced asthma and didn’t even think I could run. The pace was suicidal and I had to stay off the pace. The lead two runners were both altitude runners from Kenya. I later learned that one had been given instructions by the Kenyan Athletic Association to set an extremely fast pace as a strategy to defeat me and allow his teammate to win, which he did. Even so, it was probably the most brilliant race I ever ran and I won the silver medal. Once it was over, I was done. Completely spent.
RM: For a time, you retired from running. Then you decided to make a comeback in 1971 and you began training for your third Olympics competition—the 1972 games in Munich, Germany. Your decision came with plenty of sacrifices and you were definitely being stretched. Please explain how that contributed to the most life-changing decision ever for you.
JR: I was competing in a different era; no one was getting paid to run. I had to work two jobs in addition to training in order to save enough money to be able to train full-time for the six months leading up to the Olympics. In the spring of 1972, I was experiencing great swings in my running, doing well in one race, and then horribly in the next. At the L.A. Coliseum, I finished dead last in a mile race on national TV. I was hugely frustrated and confused and of course it was impacting Anne [his wife] too. In retrospect we see that God was bringing us to a breaking point, so that we would acknowledge Him.
At that same time, Christians started appearing in our lives and we knew they had something we wanted. Not church, but something different that we wanted. Finally, on May 18, 1972, Anne and I prayed and asked Jesus Christ to come into our hearts. That night, I had this overwhelming peace I’d never experienced before. It was like God saying to me, “You never have to strive again. My love is given to you freely.” It was a brand new experience, a tremendous healing, because I realized a tenth of a second in a race doesn’t mean anything to Him. He loves me unconditionally. After that night, it was just a whole, new lifestyle.
RM: You were favored to win the gold medal in the 1500-meter race at the Olympics. Instead, you experienced a crushing disappointment during the first qualifying heat. What happened, and how did your new faith influence your response?
JR: I was spiked by another runner and fell. When I fell, my head struck the railing and I was unconscious for several seconds. I managed to get up to finish the race, but I did not qualify. Anne had been up in the stands for the race and immediately she started heading for the tunnel where the athletes entered the track. Two days previously the first terrorist attack against the Israeli teams had taken place and there were guards armed with machine guns stationed at 10 or 20 yard intervals, yet miraculously no one stopped her. She met me coming off the track into the tunnel. We embraced and just stood there for a few minutes. Then we said a prayer, basically a cry for God’s help. Very soon the media and the coaches descended on us. They said it was obvious that I had been fouled and offered assurances that I would be reinstated. Then everyone disappeared. We left the track and started walking back to the Olympic Village. As we walked, I realized that in order to be reinstated, I needed someone to write the reinstatement petition. We passed the ABC television booth and I boldly walked into the booth and approached my friend, Howard Cosell. He said, “Jimmy, I’m so sorry. Sit down. We’re gonna write up that petition now. You’ll be right back in those Games!” So we submitted the petition to the IOC [International Olympic Committee]. The next day, we still had heard nothing. I suited up to get ready for the next round and finally an IOC official came up to me. “Your petition has been denied,” he said. “Why don’t you come back in four years and try again.” I wanted to strangle him!
RM: Incredible! Wasn’t the whole incident right there on film for them to view?
JR: Yes, they did have a camera clip, but the Germans didn’t want to accept it. In subsequent Olympics, if there was an incident similar to mine in one of the early rounds, it became almost automatic to advance the runner to the next round, particularly a high-seeded competitor. But for me, there was no acknowledgment that I had been fouled.
For three years, I held bitterness and unforgiveness toward the Olympics and the IOC. Then one night in the fall of 1975, I saw Tom Snyder interviewing Chuck Colson on his late-night talk show. [Colson had been incarcerated for Watergate-related charges; he subsequently became a Christian in 1973.] He was sharing what it was to be born again, and also to forgive. His testimony pierced my heart. That was the beginning of my journey…our journey, really, because Anne and I walked through the transformation together. Periodically I would re-live the injustice. But that night, I realized that there had to be a total cleansing, a genuine release if we were really going to walk with Christ. I had to forgive the official who rejected my petition. I also had to forgive myself.
Years later, our family was in Los Angeles to watch the 1984 Olympics. Watching the jumbo-tron, we saw that same IOC official who had so lightly told me to come back in four years and try again, walking down on the field. Anne and I both recognized him. On the jumbo-tron screen he was about 20 feet tall. Immediately, I remembered what I had wanted to do to that man in 1972. I also realized I no longer felt that way. I just wanted to tell him about Jesus. That’s when I knew I had forgiven him. It was a powerful way for God to teach us the gift of forgiveness.
RM: After ’72 Olympics, then what?
JR: I ran the pro track and field circuit for the International Track Association. We were trying to make it into a professional sport because at that time amateurs were being paid more than professionals, but being paid under the table. I signed in ‘72, right after the Olympics, and did that until ’76 and then that was it, in terms of professional track. After the pro-running folded, we prayed, “Lord, what are we going to do now?” In the spring of ’76, when we were not making any money and didn’t know when or from where the next dollar would come, the Lord asked us to give our last $100. We had realized that tithing was part of worshipping God and so we gave the $100 to our church. Right after that, along came Post cereal with an offer of sponsorship; a direct answer to our prayer.
RM: Let’s talk for a moment about your family. Your oldest child, Heather, had been born in 1970; four months after the Munich Olympics your twin boys, Ned and Drew, were born; and then Catharine in 1975. So you had a houseful of kids.
JR: Yes, four children in five years. We gained a whole new understanding of what it means to serve the Lord by serving one another. We homeschooled the kids for nine years and that turned out to be a great way to teach them biblical precepts, create a strong family connection, and encourage learning. We were traveling a lot and would take the kids along. I clearly remember one of our trips to Washington, D.C. I took the boys outside our hotel to throw the football. They spotted a couple of nearby monuments and enthusiastically gave me the entire histories. They knew the stories behind the statues because they were so well-read. Homeschooling really does work. Today our children are all walking with the Lord and are raising our thirteen grandchildren to do the same.
RM: You were a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1996 to 2007, representing the 2nd congressional district of Kansas. What prompted you to get into politics?
JR: When we moved back to Lawrence, Kansas in 1981, I hired a secretary who was very involved in the pro-life movement. We participated with her and her husband in the March for Life and subsequently Anne and I started a chapter of Kansans for Life. We primarily focused on education, including Silent Scream [a video documenting the destruction of an unborn baby during an abortion.] That was our first introduction to politics, and to having opposition. From there we helped in the campaigns of friends running for City Council and got more involved in the Republican Party. We had no intention of running for office, only of helping others.
When Congressman Todd Tiahrt suggested that I run for Congress in 1996, we asked my mother for counsel, as well as Coach Timmons and his wife, and Anne’s parents. (My father had passed away.) Each one gave their blessing. My mother said, “If that’s what God is calling you to do, then you have to do it.” It was our calling, and I was honored to serve the people of Kansas for ten years.
RM: Many people say that the church should not get into politics. How do you handle that objection?
JR: There has always been a misconception as to the role of pastor, religion and politics. I believe they are very much intertwined. I would go back to the Old Testament; Ezra, Nehemiah and others. They were very involved in politics. They were Jewish, concerned about their heritage and their future. They ended up doing some amazing things like rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. The biblical examples are numerous and provide a wonderful blueprint. In our own country’s history, we have the Black Robed Regiment [pre-Revolutionary War pastors who informed their congregations about the biblical basis for their fight against England]. So there is an opportunity not only to impact the current culture, but the future as well.
When people would say to us, “Christians do not belong in politics,” we would ask, “Why?” They’d say, “Because it’s an awful place!” Well, what better place to be salt and light?
RM: Were there particular platforms on which you campaigned?
JR: Pro-life, pro-family, fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, smaller government, strong military, pro-Israel – those were the primary ones. When we went into our first election, we thought, “We’ll talk about the issues.” Unfortunately, we have a media that does not direct the discussion toward substance. We had to keep repeating what we stood for. Anne and the kids, who were adults by then, were out there campaigning too. We spent a lot of time and money refuting the lies and the innuendos that had been spread. If a lie is told often enough, people will believe it. I’ve heard it said that you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. If you can get to the facts, if you actually line up two opposing candidates and where they stand on the issues, you’ll see a huge difference. Then you can win over a lot of people.
RM: The public’s rose-colored perception of a congressman is often that he or she will be able to effectuate all sorts of great things. As a godly man among all the elected representatives, how much were you really able to do?
JR: There are thousands of pieces of legislation put before the legislature each year, largely so the sponsors can go back home and say to their constituents, “Hey, look what I did!” [got passed]. But is that bill actually in the best interest of the country? Most of it is not. Often it is so that person can get re-elected. So more often than not, I became a defender of the truth, a defender of the Constitution, blocking bad legislation.
When I was on the Armed Services Committee, I had the privilege of helping to stop a bill that would have made military hospitals into abortion clinics as well. Military doctors overseas did not have to perform abortions, which in many cases would have been contrary not only to their own consciences, but also to the desires of the countries in which they were serving. So that’s an example of an accomplishment in the form of a defensive measure.
I remember a time when the President called 20 Republican Congressmen to the White House regarding a particular legislative issue because he wanted to hear why we were in opposition…or so I thought. We sat down around a conference table where the President proceeded to hand out a birthday card for someone’s daughter, commend another on a speech he had made, promise various personal favors, etc. Of the twenty who had previously voted “no” on that political issue, eighteen went back and voted for it. Only two of us held our ground. That’s why it is so important to know who you are and what you stand for because if your principles are not in place before you go to Washington, you will be a pretzel before you leave. You’ll be so twisted around.
RM: Tell us about your non-profit organization, Jim Ryun Ministries: “Come run with Jim Ryun in a Christian atmosphere.”
JR: We started track and field camps in 1973 with Coach Jim Bush from UCLA. For two summers, we hosted these camps; I coached the running and Coach Bush did the field events. Anne and I were growing in Christ and started thinking, “Why can’t we do these camps and bring Christ into it?” So we began Jim Ryun Running Camps with the intent of giving our campers the absolute best coaching they could ever have and also making sure they understood that Jesus Christ has a plan for their lives. The camps are for runners of all ages, at distances of 800 meters and longer. Over the years, we’ve probably had six or seven thousand campers. [Marathon runner and two-time Olympic competitor Ryan Hall was one of their campers and is now a close family friend.] The runners come to camp and they hear about a personal relationship with Christ. They sit under the teaching of world-renowned exercise physiologist Dr. Jack Daniels. They listen to various speakers talk about how they can use their God-given talent to let others know too that Jesus is alive and well. God is getting the glory. It switches the paradigm from “It’s all about me” to “It’s all about the Lord.”
When it all started, Anne and I directed the camps. Now our children and their spouses have caught the vision too, and our son Drew is the director. Together we’ve put together a network. We’re investing in the next generation of runners, and the stories we hear back are very affirming.
RM: I find it humorous that at one time you said the two things you didn’t want to do were coaching and being in the political arena. And here you are, still involved in both. You currently serve as Chairman for the Madison Project. Please tell us about that organization.
JR: The Madison Project is designed to help elect full-spectrum conservatives to federal office; pro-life, pro-family, proponents of smaller government, a strong military, and lower taxes. We are very thorough in checking out who these individuals are, not what they tell you. When we endorse someone, we are very confident that when they go to D.C., they will be what we have endorsed them to be. We have built a base of people who look to us to do a really comprehensive screening, helping them to understand which individuals they can count on to make a difference rather than becoming part of the Establishment. Our primary influence is to help like-minded candidates identify with a base that will help support them financially, across the country.
RM: What bit of parting wisdom or advice can you give our readers?
JR: It’s not about you. It’s about what God wants to do through you. You’ll have different stages of life you’ll go through, but if you keep in mind that God has a plan, then life will make sense.
For more information on Ryun through his running or politics please visit: ryunrunning.com or madisonproject.com