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THE PRESSURE COOKER
Skip Myslenski
July 07, 1969
It got to Jim Ryun, who, realizing that he had never learned how to finish second, dropped out of the AAU mile, as 19-year-old Marty Liquori, whose only worry is what to do for an encore, won again
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July 07, 1969

The Pressure Cooker

It got to Jim Ryun, who, realizing that he had never learned how to finish second, dropped out of the AAU mile, as 19-year-old Marty Liquori, whose only worry is what to do for an encore, won again

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And so, suddenly, Marty Liquori, the child whom many called Wonder Boy, is now very much a man. It all happened quickly, sooner certainly than even he expected, but he is no longer just Marty Liquori, the third high school four-minute miler, the kid Olympian, the potentially great runner from Villanova. Though only 19, he is not a teen-ager. He is the man who beat Jim Ryun, and now, more than ever, people will expect greatness of him every time he runs. He realized it first the Thursday after he beat Ryun for the NCAA championship. "Now what will people expect of me?" he mused. "What do you do for an encore? It's funny. You work so long to get to this point. What comes after you get it? What will be next?" Then again, Sunday night in Miami, having won the AAU mile after Ryun quit on the second lap, Liquori said, "I won the two biggest meets of the year. I know it will feel good tomorrow. But right now, well, it seems a bit funny."

More perplexing was what happened to Jim Ryun, who had run most of the first quarter mile in second place and then, unaccountably, slowed to a near jog and stopped. It has been a frustrating year for him. He hasn't been enthusiastic about running. He has had what he calls "junk injuries."

When Ryun stepped off the track, it was, in a way, his first step into the real world. He went to the stands, put an arm around his wife Anne and, slowly, walked out of the stadium and through the parking lot. "You just saw Jim Ryun blow a big race," he muttered. Then, as he reached his car, he turned to a friend. "It's staleness," he said. "When you start to see guys pull away and there's no competitive response, it's staleness. Too much competition. Too many races. Too much pressure."

Four hours later, in his suite at the Sheraton Four Ambassadors, Ryun, lying on a couch, still in his sweat pants and Kansas University T shirt, talked of what had happened. "The Jim Ryun of a few years ago is dead as of today," he said. "I've tried very hard to be The Jim Ryun in what hasn't been a serious year of running. I would like to have enjoyed this year. But I'm not programmed that way. I just exert too much pressure on myself.

"You have to understand. There is always the fear of losing, that someone better is going to come along, that maybe there's going to be another Jim Ryun, that maybe Marty already is that. But, if I felt I was on my way out, I'd quit running. I am afraid of losing. But I can't think back to the day when I wasn't scared. It's when that fear of losing becomes so overwhelming—then it's time to quit.

"The problem is that the world I lived in before was one of fantasy. All I've done is win. It's a new thing to lose. The Jim Ryun before was a person who, because of circumstances breaking his way, made it to the top in a short time, without knowing how to lose, without knowing how to finish a strong second.

"There has to be a new Jim Ryun. I have to exemplify my new self instead of the old one. I am anxious to compete. But I have to realize I can't control races like before. What happened out there today was more mental than physical. It's not a question of making excuses. It's a question of explaining it. And I just don't know how to do that right now.

"If I don't get over this pressure I put on myself, that fear of losing, I may never step on a track again. I made a mistake by quitting, I realize that. I think I grew up today. I think the life Anne and I live from now on will be a lot more real and with a lot more feeling. It's not a pleasant thing, losing. Yet it makes everything more real. Actually, we've always been down with the Joneses. But before, no one would admit it."

Ryun wasn't alone in succumbing to the curious malaise that seems to be affecting so many young people. Dick Fosbury declined to make a third attempt at 7'1" in the high jump, which Otis Burrell won at that height. "I just didn't feel like jumping," Fosbury said. "It's fatigue, mental and physical. I've never done this before, but it was just getting to me."

And Ryun wasn't the only champion to fall. John Carlos, The World's Fastest Human, was beaten in the 100 by an unknown, Ivory Crockett ("That's Crockett as in Davy and Ivory as in soap," he explained later), a freshman from Southern Illinois. And Bob Seagren, though he won the pole vault with a fine jump of 17'6", failed again by a hair in his attempt to be the first 18-foot vaulter. "I want to be the guy to do it," he said the day before. "What else is there in track except doing something someone else hasn't done?"

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