“My thought was, ‘How can that happen?’”, Ryun said. “I was limiting my thinking to my physical experience that day. When I finished, my legs, my lungs, everything hurt.”
So, how did it happen? After all, Ryun was new to distance running, and he was new to success. In fact, before joining cross country, Ryun had been cut from every other athletic team he tried out for, from baseball to basketball and even track & field. But once he found distance running, the tall, lanky teenager’s natural talent began to flourish under the leadership of Coach Timmons.
“He was always presenting challenges not only to me, but to all his athletes,” Ryun said. “They were really outside of our comfort zone, because he had great expectations, and he was going to provide the necessary training for those achievements to be possible. He was a very visionary, wonderful coach. He took a kid who was just tall and skinny and made him into a four-minute miler and a World Record holder.”
After meeting Coach Timmon’s challenge, Ryun realized that breaking four minutes wasn’t the end goal, it was just the beginning. But he would have to test his skill and ability. He would have to take ownership.
“Ownership means you know what you can do to excel a little bit more,” Ryun explained. “The coach can only take you so far, but there are things you, as the athlete, can do. For example, I could maybe do an extra wind sprint or I could do more stretching, or drills like that to enhance my performance.
“So, that night, I took ownership as Coach Timmons had trained not only me, but a lot of the other athletes, and it took off from there to World Records and other events that followed, including the James E. Sullivan Award.”
Accepting Coach Timmons’ challenge led Ryun to an exceptional career that included three Olympic Games, an Olympic silver medal, six World Records, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year (1966), ABC Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year (1966), and Track & Field News Athlete of the Year (1966 and 1967), as well as topping the list of ESPN.com’s Best High School Athletes Ever over LeBron James and Tiger Woods, among others.
In April, Ryun will attend the AAU James E. Sullivan Award Ceremony. Fifty years after receiving the honor himself, Ryun still feels a deep respect for the award and what it represents to amateur athletes in every sport across the country.