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He was skinny—like me. A famous athlete—which I wanted to be.
I wanted to be the center of attention, and this skinny runner was getting all the attention I craved.
I was in elementary school, and the collegian Jim Ryun gave hope of athletic acclaim to this 76-pounder. It seemed every month leading up to the 1968 Summer Olympics, Ryun was setting record after record in distance running. During 1966 and 1967 he set world records in the 880-yard run, the 1,500-meter run, the one-mile outdoor run and the one-mile indoor run.
He was in the newspapers and on TV as often as any home-run hitting baseball player or any touchdown-scoring running back. He was famous and he was skinny—and he was my sports hero.
Oh, how I wanted to be the next Jim Ryun. I wanted to break his records. I wanted my picture in the newspapers and in the magazines, pictures of my hands raised, my fists clenched and my face contorted as I ran across the finish line in world-record time: “Michael Paul set a world record in the mile Saturday, breaking Jim Ryun’s record of 3 minutes, 51.1 seconds by one-half second. . . .”
Ryun won a silver medal in the 1968 Summer Olympics at Mexico City—and it was a disappointment to me and many others he failed to win gold. A Kenyan runner, more acclimated to running in high altitudes, won the gold.
Ryan got another chance to win gold four years later, at the Olympics in Munich, Germany. As good as Ryun was, he and his competitors had to run in qualifying races to ensure themselves a place in the gold-medal race. I thought Ryun would sprint to the lead in his qualifier and run to a dominating victory while his competitors would run out of breath trying to catch him, like overweight kids in gym class.
But the qualifying race went differently. A few laps into the race, Ryun was in a pack of runners with no clear leader. I was waiting for him to make his move, to show that famous runner’s kick, to sprint to the lead. To win.
He fell. One of other runners accidentally tripped Ryun. But the race continued.
For an eternal instant, Ryun lay on the track, then his competitive nature willed him to stand and resume running. He was in obvious pain—he held one of hips as if he were grabbing a loose wallet—and he limped as he failed to catch the runners on their way Olympic glory. That was the last time I saw Ryun run, and after that race, attention faded from Ryun. He lost his chance for a gold medal and lost the attention of the sports media. (He later became a congressman representing his home state of Kansas.)
One circumstance or another prevented me from ever becoming a competitive miler, but as I approached the half-century mark of my life, I reviewed old goals and set new goals.
To stay fit, I became a jogger. I struggled. The first time I jogged a mile—I crazily ran as fast as I could, as if to impress Ryun—my lungs felt as it they were on fire.
I coughed and coughed as I tried to clear the congestion. It hurt. Now I can jog at the drop of a hat. It’s fun (well, until the fourth mile).
Some 40 years later, as the 2008 Summer Olympics approach, Ryun again is in my thoughts, a fountain of youth. He’s skinny. He’s famous. And this skinny jogger still admires him. This balding jogger remains inspired by him.
MICHAEL PAUL is the sports editor at the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.