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Running free

Records and medals couldn't give legendary miler Jim Ryun happiness, but something else did

Running free

(Roll Call Pix/Newscom; inset: Rich Clarkson/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

When you're 19 years old and Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year after setting world records in the mile and half-mile runs, does everything later seem like twilight? Only if you're centered on gold medals rather than God. Former Rep. Jim Ryun, R-Kan., voted the best high school athlete ever by ESPN The Magazine readers (Tiger Woods finished second), speaks about running and life.

Q: Why did you start running? I started out just wanting to be part of an athletic team. Somehow as a young boy that became the benchmark. I tried out for the baseball team and my experience was going from the outfield to the infield to the bench and being cut-and it was the church baseball team.

Q: When did running get you onto a team? I tried out for the junior high track and field team and never made it for three years. Then by the grace of God I went out for the high school cross country team and that's when this all started. I got a letter jacket. I thought I'd get a girlfriend.

Q: Do girls go for high school runners? You know, they really don't.

Q: When you joined your high school track team in 1962, you ran a mile in 5:38. The following spring you ran it in 4:07, and then you went below four minutes. How did that happen? I don't know. I have to go back now and then and pinch myself to be sure it actually happened. For those who aren't runners, a minute and a half off is a phenomenal turnaround. When I ran well I'd have a hard time believing it actually happened to me. Before the next big race I would sit down and watch films (of previous races) and would go, "That's me. I think I can do it still." It was difficult to believe it was happening. All I can tell you is that God gave me some wonderful talent and a great coach.

Q: You became known for grueling workouts-lots of fast quarters. We ran as much as 40 quarter miles. My high school coach was also a swimming coach, so he took the concept of swimming-doing short intervals with very little rest-and applied them to the sport of track and field. I became one of those guinea pigs. We overworked but had great success. I was one of those unique guys who did not break down under the physical load.

Q: A lot of people thought you would win the gold medal in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. What happened there? Seven thousand, two hundred feet of altitude. It was difficult. The hard part for me was when I came back and one of my hometown newspapers said in large print on the front page, "Ryun Only Wins a Silver Medal."

Q: As you set records you were on the cover of Sports Illustrated seven times? Yes.

Q: You and Anne married in 1969. How did you first meet her? At a track meet in Berkeley, Calif. It was expected that I might set the world record. By the grace of God, I did. When the race was over I had autographs and interviews that lasted about two to three hours. I went to the tent where all my warm-up things were stored. They were all stolen. Somebody got early souvenirs. I jogged across the field with my spikes in my hand. Up [to me] ran this real attractive girl.

Q: You had more running success over the next several years. When you have a lot of success you'd think people are really happy inside, but inside was that sense of, "There's got to be something more." In spring, 1972, we were attending a Bible study and this older couple started sharing with us even though I was already churched. My family had gone to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, youth group: Whatever was happening, I was there. But they began sharing with me what it was to know Jesus Christ in a personal relationship as opposed to just being churched. We realized what was missing in our lives was not world records and gold medals but a relationship with Christ.

Q: Later in 1972 you tried again to win an Olympic gold medal. What happened? I fell in the opening round. I was bumped by another runner. I have a 50 percent loss of hearing and I tip over very easily. I fell over, was stunned on the track, and didn't qualify for the next round of competition. To me, that's when my walk with the Lord really began because I had to decide: Were we going to walk the Christian walk or was this just a game we were playing? Anne and I met in a tunnel and we prayed a very simple prayer: "Dear God, please help us. This isn't what we expected." And He did.

Q: You trained for years and then in a second it was all gone. It comes down to confronting reality. The reality was that I had fallen, and then what do you do next? I was in uncharted territory. Over the next several years I learned a couple things: First of all, you've got to forgive yourself. Then you begin to forgive others and you recognize that God had to forgive us for all of our sins, so He's given the most. It took some time because I was so angry after it was over that when the Olympics came on four years later I couldn't watch them. You have to allow God to work in your life-and it takes time-and then there is real healing. I wouldn't want to live it again, but my life is better for it.

Q: What did you decide to do with the rest of your life? For 36 years we've been doing running camps in a Christian atmosphere. We teach kids how to run and share Christ. I was a youth pastor for a while, which was a unique experience-great preparation for running for politics. Church politics is a lot tougher than regular politics. Eventually I ran for Congress in 1996.

Q: When you got to Washington that year you had the advantage of knowing what the spotlight is like. I had already had the experience of being on the cover and doing national interviews, so when I served in Congress that wasn't exciting.

Q: You broke with the Bush administration on No Child Left Behind and Medicare. No Child Left Behind offered more government control and took control away from local constituencies back home. Medicare Part D was a growing of the government. While I respected the president and his stance, in terms of fiscal responsibilities we differed a great deal.

Q: You lost a reelection try in 2006 and fell short again in 2008. Do you think Republicans will be able to make a congressional comeback in 2010? I hope they will learn the lesson they didn't learn while they were in the majority, which is, do not overspend.

Q: What do you plan to do over the next few years? Speaking, running camps, helping conservatives run for office, and sharing Christ every opportunity I have. Jesus has made a difference in our lives and I have only so many years left to live, so that's part of the message that Anne and I will continue to carry until the Lord calls us home.

Q: What have you learned about marriage in 40 years? Marriage is, in my opinion, the bringing together of two very selfish people who have to learn a lot about giving, and if you put Jesus at the center of that process He will help you. I know some people do it without Jesus, but I don't know how. It's got to be rough. Even with Jesus it's a challenge, but it's a rich, wonderful experience.

To hear Marvin Olasky's interview with Jim Ryun, click here.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.