Silver medalist Jim Ryun recalls pressures of Olympics

Published: Jul. 30, 2021 at 10:37 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - This Olympics has drawn new attention to the pressures elite athletes are under and the role of mental health in physical performance.

Kansas native Jim Ryun knows that first hand. He was just 17-year-old when he ran in his first Olympics in Tokyo.

“(The pressure) is very large, very real,” Ryun told 13 NEWS. “The hard part is that when you speak to the media, they don’t always understand what you’re going through.”

Ryun arrived at the 1964 Olympics surrounded by the headlines of having become the first high schooler to run a mile in under four minutes. What many people didn’t know is that a high fever during a childhood bout with measles left him with only 50 percent hearing, which added to the challenges of trying to navigate the international stage.

“Many times, I would miss things,” Ryun said. “Interviews were always interesting in that I didn’t always hear everything they said. I’d usually pick up on a word or two, and I could tell if I got it right because there wasn’t a puzzled look on their face.”

It wasn’t until he was 40 and running for Congress that Ryun finally got help from hearing aids. He says they changed his life so much, he’s now a spokesman for the company Lyric.

“The Lyric system gives me the ability to communicate, which is a big part of what you do in the Olympics because there’s a tremendous number of interviews and people to interact with,” he said.

That was even more true for Ryun at his 2nd Olympics - 1968 in Mexico City. By that time, he was a world record holder and favored to bring home the gold in the 1500 meter run. He felt the pressure, and the altitude.

“Before the final, I’m warming up and I went the to coach - the distance coach Ted Haydon of the University of Chicago - and said, ‘Coach, I don’t think I can run. I feel awful.’ A nd yet, it was what I had prepared for, and he simply encouraged me. He said, ‘Jim, why don’t you do your warm up, go to the starting line, let the gun go off, and then just run your race.’ That’s what i needed to hear, was a little bit of encouragement, just an acknowledgement that there were problems, but address those as the race starts - and I ran, in my opinion and many others’ opinion, the race of my life,” Ryun said. “We put so much emphasis on gold, it was as if I had failed, and yet to me it was a great honor and still is to have won an Olympic silver medal.”

With his experiences, Ryun says he can empathize with what an athlete like Simone Biles is experiencing. Ryun says everyone is different, and must find their own ways to cope.

He said it’s a topic they address at his running camps.

“Is your identity only in sports? And if it is, when you have a failure, you feel awful about yourself and you feel like a failure, but you need to understand that your identity can be in other places,” Ryun said. “For me, after I became a Christian, it helped me identify and deal with a lot of different things. Failure is only a temporary detour to success.”

Ryun also said today’s athletes have the added pressure of social media. He said he dealt with criticism from sports writers, but it wasn’t the same as the current situation, when anyone can post for the world to see.

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