Jim Ryun, the first U.S. high schooler to break four minutes in the mile and an Olympic silver medalist, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the Oval Office, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on Friday.
He joins a long line of Olympians to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali and Pat Summitt.
In a news release Tuesday, the White House said it is awarded “to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
“I’m very humble that I was even considered,” Ryun said by phone on Monday. “One of the things that’s really special about it, too, is that I’m getting it while I’m alive. Sometimes these are awarded after you’re dead.”
Ryun, 73, followed his running career, which included an eight-year span as mile world-record holder, by serving two terms as a U.S. Congressman for Kansas from 1996-2007. Last Friday marked the 54th anniversary of his mile world record performance of 3:51.3 at age 19.
Ryun competed in the Olympic 1500m in 1964 (at age 17), 1968 and 1972. He reached the final in 1968 and earned silver behind Kenyan Kip Keino. He remains the 11th-fastest miler in U.S. history and the oldest in the top 75.
Ryun reflected Monday about failing to make any of his junior high school’s sports teams. He was even cut from his church baseball squad. But within two years of starting cross-country in high school, he broke the four-minute barrier and made the Olympics.
When LeBron James was getting national TV coverage as a high school phenom, ESPN published a list of the greatest prep athletes in history. James was No. 3. Tiger Woods was No. 2. Ryun was No. 1.
Ryun said he still runs two or three days a week.
“But you can’t really call it running anymore. It’s so slow,” he said. “It’s certainly not very fast. It used to be four-minute miles. I’m not even sure I could do a four-minute half-mile now.”
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