SI Vault
Pat Putnam
July 17, 1972
From the lofty feats of the vaulters to the great thrusts of the shotputters, the U.S. Olympic track and field team appears just as impressive as ever
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July 17, 1972

The High And The Mighty

From the lofty feats of the vaulters to the great thrusts of the shotputters, the U.S. Olympic track and field team appears just as impressive as ever

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As the U.S. gathered its Olympic track and field forces in Eugene, Ore. the past two weeks, and as its might made itself felt, the whole became less the center of attention than one of its parts. Surely there is no need to lose sleep over a team that boasts two world-record-tying 100-meter sprinters; puts three men over 18 feet, one for a world record, in the vault; opens its shotput elimination with a field that includes the only three men ever to have surpassed 70 feet and then has a cigarette-puffing whackadoo actually oust one of them; and sends forth a miler to tie the world record for 800 meters. Plus other delights, such as bringing perhaps the world's eight best quarter-milers to their marks at the same time and place. The mind is benumbed. And then there is Jim Ryun (see cover).

Ryun, the 25-year-old two-time Olympian, plagued by hay fever, defeat and dreary miles of four minutes, or five or 10 it sometimes seemed, but refusing to quit, and thereby gaining as much respect for his courage (or obstinacy) as he ever did for his three world records. Ryun, bouncing pathetically from Kansas to Oregon to California and back to Kansas, ever questing for the answer. Ryun, winning one race, running a dismal next-to-last in his next, chasing victory, catching frustration. "I've put my faith in God," he said. "What will happen will be what He wants to happen." But there were many moments when it appeared He couldn't make up His mind.

When Ryun returned to Topeka earlier this year to train under his former coach Bob Timmons, it seemed he had at last found himself. But then the erratic performances began again, the worst a 4:19.2 mile in Los Angeles. "I was beside myself," said Timmons. "I was climbing walls."

In desperation he sought the help of Dr. William Simpson of the Menninger Clinic, who told him to stop babying Ryun. When Ryun came home to Kansas, Timmons had said that he would work out a schedule for him, but if he didn't want to follow it, well, whatever he wanted to do would be fine.

"Wrong," said Dr. Simpson. "You were the boss before and if you aren't the boss now he'll think you no longer care. You've got to stop feeling sorry for him. You've got to go by your gut reaction. If he needs to be chewed out, chew."

Timmons believed. And he also made a technical training change; he took Ryun off hill work. "He's not a good hill runner," the coach said. "He didn't particularly like cross-country for that reason. He'd run the hills and he'd come back feeling as though he had a good workout, but he was not feeling right mentally. And that would affect his training all week. Every little thing was aimed at building his mental toughness, which was what he needed. When Jim was winning, he never thought about winning, he just did it. But when he started to lose, he began thinking about losing."

At the same time it was discovered that Ryun was allergic to a number of foods, including milk, which he had been drinking in great quantities. Now he is allowed only a splash on his cereal. "Who can eat dry dry cereal?" Ryun complained to Timmons. "We took him off so many foods," said Timmons, "the poor guy had almost nothing left."

Then the Olympic Trials began and it looked like Ryun might indeed end up with nothing: he was eliminated in the 800 final. But he had run strongly, and was confident as he awaited the 1,500. "In the 800 I was worried about my hay fever," he said. "But I ran three fast races and it never bothered me. Now I feel the pressure is off."

And Timmons was hopeful. "I've seen a loss like that affect him both ways," he said. "Sometimes it makes him angry." He smiled. "That wouldn't hurt."

Whatever his mood, Ryun ran well enough to win his two 1,500 heats and gain a place in the final. He seemed unconcerned when the semifinals were thrice redrawn and the size of the final field increased from nine to 12. Well, 11. One of the added starters, Joe Savage, concluded he had been eliminated and had gone home.

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