Former Santa Barbara resident Jim Ryun, the last American to hold the world record in the mile run, picked up perhaps his final medal on Friday.
Ryun, 73, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s top civilian honor — during a White House ceremony attended by family members and streamed live to the public.
“In an age when many think it’s appropriate to dishonor our flag, I will tell you, it is one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life to represent this amazing country and represent the stars and stripes on my chest while racing in the 60s and 70s,” Ryun said.
A White House press release said the medal is awarded to “individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Ryun moved to Santa Barbara while at the apex of his career, in August of 1971, while joining Olympic decathlon champion Bill Toomey to start the Club West Track Club.
He returned to his Kansas roots a decade later and represented the Jayhawk state in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1996 to 2007, although he’s remained a frequent visitor to Santa Barbara. He was enlisted by Providence School to speak at Christ Presbyterian Church just last October.
“He and (Ryun’s wife) Anne warmly greeted the Westmont distance guys and spent time talking with them after his presentation,” Westmont College coach Russell Smelley said. “When Jim was in Congress, I was able to have the team visit with him at his Congressional office.”
Ryun had been the whiz kid of running, breaking the four-minute mile while still just a high school junior. He was only 17 when he became the youngest male to ever make the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team, earning a ticket to Tokyo for the 1964 Summer Games. ESPN has ranked him as the greatest high school athlete of all time.
He set world records in the mile, the 1500 meters and the 800 before he even turned 21. His mile time of 3:51.1 at the 1967 AAU National Championships remained a world record for eight years. He also won a silver medal in the 1500 at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, taking second to Kenya’s Kipchoge Keino.
Ryun never won Olympic gold, however. The rest of his career was beset by mishaps and allergies.
He moved to Eugene, Ore. to train for the 1972 Olympic Games but was immediately overwhelmed by hay fever. Toomey got him to move to Santa Barbara just six months later, telling him that its Mediterranean climate would be more conducive for training.
“I had to leave Eugene,” Ryun told a News-Press reporter shortly after his arrival in town. “I really enjoyed it there but just couldn’t take the pollen.
“I feel fine today. I’ve only been through half a box of Kleenex instead of one and a half boxes.”
Ryun, who had majored in photojournalism at the University of Kansas, took a job at Raytheon as an industrial photographer. He also began training at SBCC’s La Playa Stadium for the 1972 Olympics.
“I remember many a workout with Gerry Lindgren,” he said many years later. “The air was nice and cool. The setting was beautiful.
“We always fantasized what a great place it would be with a better track.”
He returned to Eugene later that year for the U.S. Olympic Trials, asking a local doctor to accompany him.
“He has really conquered the allergies,” Dr. Jay Keystone said on the eve of the Trials. “It was a physical thing, but it also weighed down on his mind. Now he feels quite relieved.”
Ryun qualified in the 1500 and was favored to win the gold medal in Munich. He got boxed in during an Olympic preliminary race, however, and was tripped to the ground. He finished last and failed to qualify for the finals.
The precipitous fall came at the peak of his career. He would later credit his Christian faith for helping him cope with the disappointment.
“When you are the favorite to win the gold medal, as I was at 1,500 meters, and in a race no American has won since 1908, your expectations as well as the general public’s is very high,” he said. “Coupled with the fact that the International Olympic Committee could have reinstated me because it was a foul and they chose the easier decision not to, it’s very easy to see how bitterness and frustration could overwhelm me.
“But now that Jesus Christ has helped me, I’m running again without the frustration that I once felt.”
Ryun volunteered in Santa Barbara’s running community, working in track camps at both UCSB and Westmont. He also served as a referee at the 1974 Special Olympics at San Marcos High School while still reigning as the world’s top middle-distance runner.
The weight of high expectations and diminished returns, however, prompted him to retire from international competition in 1976.
“Pressure was my biggest fear,” he explained. “Sometimes it was generated by the media. Sometimes by the competition. Sometimes it is internal.
“It was hard to explain. It almost became self-destructive. Every runner has to learn to adjust to it. I guess the success I had as a young boy helped build up that pressure.”
Ryun was working for a now-defunct, Christian radio station in Santa Barbara when he first crossed paths with Smelley in 1979.
“Jim and I made acquaintances and later in the fall, he spoke at Westmont to an FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes)-packed gathering at Page Hall,” Smelley said. “He shared his story and his faith testimony and everyone was close by to an Olympic medalist and a track-and-field icon.”
Three of Ryun’s four children were born in Santa Barbara, but he decided to move his family back to Kansas in 1981.
“A lot of things went into our decision to move,” he said. “The style of life isn’t as glamorous back there and we think that’s important for the children. On the West Coast, everything is so sunshiny and bright and fast-paced.”
He reconnected with Smelley, however, during the 1988 NAIA Indoor Nationals in Kansas City.
“Jim and Anne were there and made a purposeful effort to visit with me,” Smelley said. “I invited Jim to run at the Easter Relays in a special mile event.”
Ryun accepted the invitation but pulled out of the race after just three laps because of a strained calf muscle.
“Praise the Lord, that’s a new muscle I can pray for,” Ryun told the News-Press afterward.
He returned to town a year later, at age 41, to take part in the Jim Ryun 5K Fun Run portion of the Chardonnay 10-miler. But he also had to bring along an IOC-approved, bronchial inhaler to deal with his exercise-induced asthma.
“Things don’t always function like they used to,” he said.
Every good run does have a finish line, although Ryun’s victory lap did take him all the way to the White House last Friday.
He also beat a field of 66 in an internet vote conducted just three months ago by LetsRun.com to crown the Greatest American Distance Runner of All Time.
“This vote,” Ryun tweeted, “has taken me down memory lane.”