THE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you very much. Please. Let’s enjoy ourselves. This is a tremendous moment for Jim and your family, and let’s just enjoy ourselves for a little while. We’ll ask Jim to say a few words. I want to hear what he has to say about his great talent, his great running ability. I find athletics to be extraordinary. I love it.
Thank you for being here. And today, it is my privilege to present our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to a legendary athlete and a legendary runner, Olympian, and true American patriot: former Congressman Jim Ryun. Jim, congratulations. Fantastic. (Applause.)
We’re joined today by Jim’s wife Anne — thank you, Anne, very much; congratulations — and various family members. But his son –- where is Ned? Ned, thank you very much. Catharine, thank you very much. And I’m going to ask you to come up and say a few words — the both you — so you better be prepared. (Laughter.) You got a lot of news back there. See? I’m being nice today. I don’t use the other word in front the word “news.”
But Jim’s journey started with a prayer. After being cut from his church baseball team — I can’t believe that; that must’ve been a bad day, huh? — (laughter) — and junior high school basketball team –- they probably made a mistake — he asked God for guidance. Jim wanted to know God’s plan for him, and he only had one request: that it was something to do with sports. You like sports.
That prayer was answered when Jim joined the high school track. He joined it and had no experience whatsoever. As he said, he didn’t really know what he was doing, and he didn’t know what he was doing there.
In his very first mile race, however, he came in a second — he came in second place to the reigning state champion and a real talented person. Do you ever see him around, by the way?
MR. RYUN: Occasionally.
THE PRESIDENT: He still around?
MR. RYUN: Yes, he is.
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, that’s pretty good. He’s still saying, “What happened?” (Laughter.)
But Jim’s first time in running the mile was 4 minutes and 32.4 seconds. So that tells you there’s something genetically that’s pretty good, right? Because that doesn’t happen: 4 minutes 32.4 seconds, the first time he ever ran the mile. That was the last time he ever came in second in a high school race. And after that, Jim was always first.
The next year, Jim ran a 3:59 mile and became the first high school athlete in history to smash the 4-minute barrier. That summer, he also competed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as the youngest middle distance runner in the world — by quite a bit, actually.
In Jim’s senior year of high school, he ran against three-time Olympic gold medal winner Pete Snell. He was good, wasn’t he? Huh? But that was a bad day for Pete. (Laughter.)
Before the event, Snell reportedly said that he didn’t think Jim would have much of a chance or be “much of a factor.” Jim soon proved him wrong. With 300 meters left in the race, Jim surged ahead of the pack and swept across the finish line in a fraction of he — his time — what was your time — 3 minutes and 55.3 seconds? That’s not bad, right?
MR. RYUN: It was okay, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Not bad. I don’t know. What did Pete say? Was he a gracious — was he gracious about it?
MR. RYUN: Very gracious, yeah.
THE PRESIDENT: But he was a great runner. I mean, he was a -– he was a great runner. This was also a stand at high school — it right now stands in high school as a record for 35 years. It took 35 years to break that record.
When ESPN ranked the greatest high school athletes — listen to this; this is incredible — when ESPN ranked the greatest high school athletes of all time, all sports, they listed Jim Ryun as number one. That’s not bad for a guy who couldn’t make his baseball team, right? Huh? (Applause.) That’s really — that’s really an amazing achievement. That’s incredible.
Jim continued his extraordinary athletic career at the University of Kansas. In 1966, he set his first world record in the mile time at a time of 3 minutes and 51.3 seconds, becoming the first American to do so in more than three decades.
After the race, a young fan ran up to him and asked for his autograph. That fan would become his future wife. That was a good autograph. (Laughter.) That was Anne. Oh, you two are so lucky that happened, huh? I wonder where you’d be, I guess. That’s fantastic. Great, Anne.
In 1967, Jim ran an incredible 3:51.1 mile, which would stand as the world-record mile for almost a decade. Jim still describes it as “the easiest race he ever ran.” Is that right? It was just — it was magic.
MR. RYUN: Amazing.
THE PRESIDENT: It was magic. To this day, it’s the last time an American set the world record in the mile. So that was a while ago. What is the world record right now? So you’re at 3:51.
MR. RYUN: 3:43 or —
THE PRESIDENT: 3:43 or so, huh? Okay. That’s a long time, right? They’ve — training and lots of other things, right?
MR. RYUN: Well, yeah. Some of the other things aren’t so good, but yes. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Oh. We have breaking news now. (Laughter.) This could be the big story today. Forget about it. That’s great. But that is — that is some long period of time that he held the record.
In 1968, Jim proudly represented Team USA at the Mexico City Olympics and won the silver medal for the 1,500. And he also competed in the 1972 Munich Olympics with great distinction.
A few years later, Jim retired from running. He had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated seven times, was ranked Sportsman of the Year in 1966, was inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, and received the immortal nickname, “Master of the Mile.” And he was. I remember it. I shouldn’t tell you that, but I remember a lot of your races. They weren’t even close, actually.
In 1975, he founded the Jim Ryun Running Camps. For the past 45 years, Jim has helped teach thousands of young people to reach their fullest and best athletic potential. He has been a dedicated mentor to campers and shared in the critical importance of a Christian faith. He’s very devoted to Christianity.
In 1996, Jim was elected to the House of Representatives, and he went on to serve five terms in Congress. I wish we had him now. We have some great people in there though, I’ll tell you. We have some great, dedicated, hard workers, and they’ve done a terrific job, right? Wouldn’t you say, Ned? I think so. Some really great ones.
But he served five terms from the Kansas Second District. He was a principled, committed, very tough and beloved lawmaker. That’s what they said: He was tough and yet beloved. That’s a rare combination.
Jim has personified the greatness of our country throughout his life. Whether he was running on a track race, or whether he was doing anything there was — running an office or running for office — he was always the top person. People respected him more. I’ve heard it for a long time. I’d ask about him, and they’d say, when he was in Washington, he was just a respected person.
He’s a giant of American athletics, a dedicated public servant, and a man of charity, generosity, and faith. He’s a great man, actually.
Jim, thank you for your unfailing devotion to our country, and congratulations on a lifetime of incredible success, not only athletically — that was obviously a big deal — but what you’ve done in life and even with you family has been just incredible. So I’d like to congratulate you very much.
And before we present you with the incredible, beautiful metal, I’d like to ask maybe Catharine and Ned to come up and say a few words, if you’d like, and talk about your father. Please. (Applause.)
MS. CATHARINE RYUN: Well, thank you, first of all, for giving us a couple of minutes.
THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely.
MS. CATHARINE RYUN: Dad, thank you for being the man that you are. I know that today is all about your accolades in the public eye, but you have been such an amazing dad, and
wife [husband] of more than 50 years to mom, and just a man of character. And this is a man who loves the Lord with all his heart and has been such an amazing father to all of us.
And so, thank you. I’m proud to be your daughter.
THE PRESIDENT: That’s great.
MS. CATHARINE RYUN: And, Mr. President, thank you for having us here today. I want to leave you with my favorite verses from Numbers. It’s, “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May He make His face to shine upon you and give you peace.”
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. That’s so nice. Thank you, Catharine. (Applause.)
MR. NED RYUN: Mr. President, thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
MR. NED RYUN: This — this means a great deal to me. I’m not going to get choked up. I got choked up last night on “Tucker,” and I told myself I would not do that again.
But I just wanted to tell everybody: You know my dad as the “Miler,” as the “Master of the Mile,” as the world-record holder, as the three-time Olympian. And I want to tell a story really quick of one of his former colleagues, J. Dickey, out of Arkansas. And he pulled me aside one day, and he said, “Ned, there are a lot of people in Congress who think they’re all that. They’re drunk on power. They’re arrogant.”
He’s like, “Your dad walks the halls as one of the most humble, gracious people I know. But the thing about your dad is, there are very few people in the world that can say they were ever the very, very best at what they did in all of the world — in a world full of billions of people, you were the absolute best at what you did — and your dad was. But you would never know that because he’s so gracious, he’s so kind, and he’s so humble.”
And I tell people this all the time: The sacrifice, everything that went into being the very best in the world — and yet, you would — you would never know it. You could have a conversation with my dad, and when he talks with his fans and he gives them autographs and he shares a few moments with them, he — the graciousness that is displayed is an example to me, as his son.
And I — and I tell people this all the time: The integrity and honesty, the nobility that he has shown in life — if I can be half the man that he is, it’ll be a triumph.
THE PRESIDENT: You’re doing a good job.
MR. NED RYUN: Thank you. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, both.
MR. RYUN: Mr. President, I learned a long time ago, when you have such great introduction — thank you for the comments — and you have your children saying wonderful things, it’s probably a good idea to find the exit while you’re ahead. (Laughter.) So I — and I am considering that. However, I want to make some few remarks.
Mr. President, thank you on behalf of my family, which includes my wife of 51 years — and, yes, she did chase me down — (laughter) — our children and grandchildren, our dear friends who have traveled far and wide. Thank you for bestowing on me this high honor of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On behalf of them, I accept that, and I thank you for this privilege.
These achievements we’re — we are celebrating began with a simple prayer — you actually talked about that a moment ago — after being cut from the church baseball team, junior high basketball team, and the junior — well, I never made the junior high track team. I began ending each day with this simple prayer — and, by the way, I’ll throw it out there for you that if you’re looking for something, this would be a good way to start:
“Dear God, I’d like my life to amount to something. I believe you have a plan for my life. I’d appreciate your help in figuring it out. And if you could help me out and make a plan that would include sports of some kind, I’d really appreciate it. Thank you, and goodnight.” (Laughter.)
God did indeed show up in a huge way, answering my simple, heartfelt prayer. I finally made my first athletic team, the Wichita East cross country team, my sophomore year in high school. God gave me a former Marine, Bob Timmons, to coach me. I wasn’t even supposed to be at East High School. Southeast High was just down the street from where I live. But as I didn’t have plans to go to college, I instead went across town to East High School to go to a vo-tech school to be a draftsman so I could follow my father and brother and work at Boeing.
But as we know, God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform — and in my first year of running, I became the national high school record holder.
Eighteen months after starting to run seriously in 1964, I became the first high school boy to run a mile under four minutes, a feat which many had thought impossible until Coach Timmons, who we affectionately called “Timmy,” had me sit with him on a bus ride from Kansas City back to Wichita in my sophomore year. He told me, “Jim, I think you can be the first high schooler to break four minutes.” Being perfectly honest, I thought, at the time, he might be just a little crazy. (Laughter.)
Every reality begins with a dream, a seed of inspiration, and Timmy planted that seed. And I wanted to believe him, that maybe, just maybe, it was possible. I committed to it; took ownership; and in the blazing hot summer days and in the bitter cold winters of Kansas, began running 100 miles a week — week after week, month after month — many of them run in the dark, after school, all to compress those countless hours and thousands of miles into running four laps in less than four minutes.
Not only would I break the four-minute mile my junior year in high school, several months later, I would find myself pouring every ounce of strength down the homestretch of the 1964 Olympic trials, making the Olympic team at 1,500 meters, winning by mere feet at the age of 17.
It was the beginning of an amazing eight years. I would set the American record in the mile at 18, and would follow Timmy to the University of Kansas — wearing the famous pink and blue colors — winning NCAA titles. I can still hear our beloved Pat — Pat Timmons — cheering me on even today. Pat — Pat Timmons and Timmy would become godparents to our children, and they would become — let me try that again — they were grandparents to our children, and Ned would be the god- — godfather — godfather’s son of our daughter. Get that out. (Laughter.) Let me try that one more time: godparents to our son Ned. (Laughter.)
I would make two more Olympic teams, the world record in the mile multiple times, the world record of the 1,500, the world record in the half mile, the indoor world record in the mile and half mile, the American record in two miles, and help set numerous world records with various relay teams. And that’s after being cut from the church baseball team so. (Laughter.)
This boy from Wichita, Kansas, would one day have written on his — his name on a piece of wood and buried it in hopes that, someday, someone might find it and remember him, would make the cover of Sports Illustrated seven times — all of that before the age of 25.
In a day and age when many think it’s appropriate to dishonor our flag, I will tell you it is one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life to represent this amazing country and to wear the stars and stripes on my chest while racing in the ’60s and ’70s. There was such pride and love of country. And I cannot tell you, Mr. President, how much I appreciate your full-throated championing of this great country. (Applause.)
The accolades in my life have exceeded anything I could have imagined. And now, Mr. President, with the Medal of Freedom bestowed on me by truly one of the greatest Republican Presidents is such a great honor. Mr. President, you have big dreams for America — ones that echo, for me, my old coach — and still a dream — what could be and in pursuit of everything you have.
Your dream of keeping America and the American Republic great and then making her greater is an epic and noble pursuit. My wife Anne; our daughter Catharine; our son Ned and Becca; and our four grandchildren; along with our dear friends present today join you in the pursuit of helping make this a reality.
Mr. President, it may surprise — it may surprise you: Time diminishes us all. I no longer run four-minute miles. In fact, I’m not sure I can run a four-minute half mile. (Laughter.) And while the applause and cheers of men fade, nothing can take away from me those moments when I was young in full flight down the final backstretch, the wind in my face, wings on my feet, pouring — powering away from my opponents. There was a purity in those times when my mind overcame a tired body. And for those few glorious moments, I would slip the bonds of the physical, and I was freed. I had won. And I look back now, realizing my running crew was a celebration.
There’s no doubt in my mind that we were all made for a purpose. I was made to run. I was also made to glorify God in all that I do. So in my words and in my actions, I celebrate that purpose and will do that always to his glory.
What Anne and I cherish very much is having had the privilege of raising four beautiful children, who contribute to our nation daily.
In addition, we’ve been blessed with the opportunity to give back to the sport of running through the Jim Ryun Running Camps. We’ve had thousands of young runners that attend the camp through the years, instilling in them this truth: God loves you and has a plan for your life. And then we challenge them with the work to become balanced human beings — to become physically, mentally, and spiritually fit.
As I received this medal — and it’s incredible honor; thank you, Mr. President — I will close by saying this: To God be the glory. Great things He has done. This day, my life, and all of these achievements — this is the Lord’s doing, and it’s marvelous in His eyes.
Mr. President, thank you for your loving and serving this great republican country. May God continue to bless you and your family with his peace. Thank you again for this great honor.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.
MR. RYUN: You’re very welcome. (Applause.)
MILITARY AIDE: Jim Ryun is a world class athlete and a highly respected former member of Congress. As one of the best middle-distance runners of all time, he’s the last American to hold the world record in the mile run. He proudly represented the United States in the 1968 Summer Olympics, earning a silver medal in the 1500-meter race.
Following his success on the track, Mr. Ryun channeled his patriotism into a noble career in public service, representing the second congressional district of Kansas for more than a decade, distinguishing himself as a principled conservative. The United States proudly recognizes Jim Ryun for his meritorious contributions to our nation.
(The Medal of Freedom is presented.) (Applause.)