July 17, 2008

Jim Ryun's two careers as a distance runner and congressman have taken strangely similar paths. With each, he began with early success, suffered a heartbreaking loss and made an effort to come back. Ultimately denied a second chance as a runner, Ryun is hopeful that the final chapter of his life as a politician has yet to be written.

Ryun wasn't an innately gifted athlete. He tried, and failed at, baseball and basketball, and had nearly given up on sports. Though he stumbled upon distance running almost by accident, he quickly knew he'd found his calling.

"Something attracted me, and I went out for the sport and virtually my life was changed," he said.

In 1964, Ryun became the first high school runner to run a sub-four-minute mile. He set world records in the mile and half-mile in 1966, and, in his second Olympic Games in 1968, he won the silver medal in the 1,500 meters.

Ryun took to his second career with similar ease. He was elected to Congress in 1996 on his first try, filling Kansas' Second District seat that was vacated by soon-to-be Sen. Sam Brownback and cementing his reputation as both a social and fiscal conservative. His tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives ended in '06 when he was defeated in his run for a fifth term by Democrat Nancy Boyda.

"I will readily admit that we didn't have the best campaign [in '06]," Ryun said. "And that's why my position was that the only way this was going to be done, to run again, was if we had great support on a grassroots level."

Losing a campaign as the incumbent was tough, but Ryun had been down like this before. During a qualifying heat at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, he was tripped. Though he appealed for reinstatement, which would have allowed him to compete in the final race, Ryun was denied. His shot at defending the silver medal he won in Mexico City in '68 was dashed. His attitude, however, was hardly dented.

"When you fall," he said, "the first thing you do is get back up and finish."

Ryun's athletic toughness in the face of defeat and political awareness blurred the lines between his two endeavors.

"As a senior in high school, I was a member of the U.S. team, competing against the former Soviet Union," he said. "I had an opportunity to see what communism was all about. I would come back and think, 'Wow, what a great country we have.'"

He was further imbued with a need to defend democracy after the Munich Games.

"Just before my event was when Black September came in and killed the Israeli athletes," he said. "That was my first introduction of terrorism."

With his running days behind him, Ryun's sights are set fully on reclaiming his Congressional seat, as he sees a number of problems that need solving.

"As I've traveled throughout the Second District, I've knocked on about 5,000 doors, and what I want to help people with are lower taxes," he said. As gas and fuel prices, illegal immigration and wasteful government spending escalate, Ryun's political concerns have weight. Tack on his challenge to Republican primary foe, Kansas State Treasurer Lynn Jenkins, to run a positive campaign, and it's clear how far Ryun wants to take his work.

Like most former track stars, Ryun is seriously concerned with the state of the sport, especially the apparent rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs. And he takes a hard line with cheaters.

"I think taking away their medals is the right thing to do," Ryun said. "You send the message that there is no place for it, [and] they'll find that they can do it the way we did it with lots of hard work and sweat."

It will take much of that same stamina for Ryun to succeed in a district that recently voted him out of office, but he believes he owes his political supporters the same fervor and determination as he gave his track fans.

"To be honest, I approach it the way I did my races," he said. "I run through the finish line. My full concentration has to be on this race and I'm not looking past November."

This confidence could come from a lifetime of success or from the fact that he's used to head-to-head competitions in the heat of the summer. In the past, Ryun had his sights set on Olympic medals, but as the August primary approaches, his eyes are on one of the 435 seats in the House.

You May Like