clock menu more-arrow no yes

I tripped and fell at my final Olympics. It was one of the best things to happen to me.

The first time I ran in the Olympics, I was a junior in high school. While my classmates were in school in Wichita, Kansas, I was competing in Tokyo.

When I would come back to Wichita from meets, many times I'd be met at the airport by 400 or 500 people. They would organize a parade from the airport to the East High School gym and expect me to make a speech. Achieving that level of success at such a young age made it easy to feel like the center of the universe.

My final Olympics brought me down to earth.

It was 1972, in Munich. Four years earlier, in Mexico City, I’d taken home a silver medal in the 1,500-meter race.

Munich was supposed to be different. It’s at sea level, so I wouldn’t have an altitude disadvantage. In the years between Mexico City and Munich, I ran 120 miles a week with some of the most intense workouts I had ever done. Leading into the Olympics, I ran the third-fastest mile in history, winning by 15 seconds.

But I never even got the chance to compete for the gold in Munich.

With a lap and a half to go in the opening qualifying round of the 1,500 meters, I tripped and fell. It happened so suddenly that one moment I was positioning myself for the final lap sprint, and the next I was flat on my back.

My coach, Bob Timmons, had always trained me that if I were ever to fall, I was not to think about how it happened but to get right back up and start running. That’s what I did.

But as I started running again, I realized that I was very far back. When I’d fallen, my head struck the railing on the inside of the track, and I had been unconscious for several seconds. I ended up coming in dead last — nowhere near good enough to advance to the final round.

After I finished the race, the United States Olympic coaches and officials came up and said, "It was obvious you were fouled; you'll be reinstated." But none of them offered to help me write a petition.

I was on my own, so I reached out to the only lawyer I knew in Munich: Howard Cosell of ABC Sports. We had become friends over the years, and he graciously agreed to help. I submitted a petition to the International Olympic Committee handwritten by Howard the next day, fully expecting to be reinstated.

The officials’ response? "It's unfortunate what happened to you. Why don't you come back in four years and try again?"

My wife and I made a promise to each other: We didn’t want our lives to end there

I was 25 years old. I had a wife, Anne, and a 2-year-old daughter. Anne was pregnant with our twin sons.

The amateurism rules were much stricter for Olympic athletes in those days, so to make a living I needed a day job — I couldn’t make any money from running. I had already decided that Munich would be my last Olympics, just because I didn’t want to put my family through the pressure of having to hold a real job in addition to training all those hours. I wasn't going to do that.

I was disappointed and angry. Angry at the officials as well as at myself. But right there in Munich, my wife and I made a promise to each other: We didn’t want our lives to end there.

Four decades later, I can say that Munich really was the beginning of our lives. We had become Christians that spring, and the challenge of Munich forced us to grow up very fast. We developed a whole new understanding of forgiveness.

I had to forgive myself — I could have run the race a little differently and not tried to weave through the field to position myself to sprint for home, but I didn’t. I had to forgive the official who rejected my petition.

It was a process that took years as I began reading the Bible, attending Bible studies, and visiting with those who had gone through similar situations of learning to forgive. I learned that forgiveness is not a "one time, done that" act; it is a process of learning to accept God's sovereignty over all of life, viewing life and others from his perspective. It is a conscious decision to go forward and not live in the past.

I thought, "Wow, I know my attitude has changed since then. I have forgiven him. I am no longer angry or bitter toward him."

Twelve years later, we were attending the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as a family. Our seats were rather high up, so we needed to look at the Jumbotron screens to see what was happening on the field.

At one particular moment the camera swung to the high jump, showing an official walking by. I stared at him. It was the same official from 1972 who had said, "Why don't you come back in four years and try again?"

I thought, "Wow, I know my attitude has changed since then. I have forgiven him. I am no longer angry or bitter toward him."

Along with the lessons in forgiveness and moving on from disappointment, Munich taught me that the world does not, in fact, revolve around me. I learned that there are lots of other people out there and I’m only one of them. And thanks to my growing Christian faith, I realized that I had a responsibility to help people.

One of the ways Anne and I have done that is by starting the Jim Ryun Running Camps. For the past 43 years, we have hosted camps for runners of all ages on various college campuses. It has been a great privilege to give back to the next generation of athletes.

Going into politics is another way I’ve tried to help people. I served in the United States House of Representatives for more than 10 years, from 1996 to 2007. I learned the true meaning of what it is to be a servant leader representing my constituents with integrity. It was an honor to serve my fellow Kansans.

I will always cherish the experiences and memories my running career brought me. The hard work I put into running changed my life and who I was to become. As I tell our campers every summer, life isn’t always about the destination. It’s about the journey and the people you meet along the way, the things you accomplish and the lessons you learn — becoming the person God made you to be.

Jim Ryun achieved national acclaim as a track and field star while a high school student in Wichita, Kansas. In 1965, Jim set the male high school mile record of 3:55.3 — a record that stood for 36 years. He participated in three summer Olympic Games: 1964, 1968, and 1972, winning a silver medal in the 1,500-meter run in 1968. Jim also held the world record in the mile, 1,500-meter, and 880-yard events. He was voted the ESPN Best High School Athlete Ever, ahead of Tiger Woods and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Congressman Ryun served five terms in the US Congress, representing the Second Congressional District of Kansas. Jim and his wife, Anne, started Jim Ryun Running Camps in 1973. Every summer they host camps in San Diego, California, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Greeley, Colorado.


As told to: Eleanor Barkhorn
Photographer: Anna Harris


First Person

The helplessness of being an Afghanistan War vet

First Person

My nemesis, the piano

Identities

The complicated reality of doing what you love

View all stories in First Person

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.