Behind the Scenes: An Inside Look at Jim Ryun’s Presidential Medal of Freedom Celebration

Mile Legends Pay Tribute After Jim Ryun Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

July 31, 2020

History was made last Friday at the White House, as former mile world record holder and five-term Kansas Congressman Jim Ryun became the first distance runner awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ryun joined Jesse Owens as the only track & field athletes to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Showing the cool fraternity between American milers, Matthew Centrowitz — the reigning Olympic 1500m champion — and Alan Webb — the current American record holder in the mile who also broke Ryun’s 36-year-old US high school mile record in 2001 — flew across the country to witness Ryun receive the medal from President Donald Trump.

Jim Ryun (Presidential Medal of Freedom & Olympic silver) and Matthew Centrowitz (Olympic gold)

In April, readers voted Ryun, 73, as the Greatest American Distance Runner of All Time, and his list of achievements is long and impressive. A prodigy at Wichita East High School in Kansas, Ryun became the first US high schooler to break 4:00 in the mile as a junior in 1964 and made his first Olympic team later that year. A year later, he set the American record of 3:55.3, and a year after that, at the tender age of 19, he set world records in the half mile (1:44.9) and mile (3:51.3). He would lower the mile record to 3:51.1 in 1967 and add the 1500 world record (3:33.1) later that year. In 1968, he earned a silver medal in the 1500 at the Mexico City Olympics.  Ryun was a legend in American sport and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated seven times and was named the magazine’s Sportsman of the Year in 1966.

Following the ceremony at the White House on July 24, co-founders Robert (Rojo) and Weldon Johnson (Wejo) attended a private reception hosted by Ryun’s son Ned and his wife Becca and discovered how deep the bond between milers runs. Tributes to Ryun poured in from running royalty across the globe, including digital messages from Steve Cram and Seb Coe and speeches by Webb, Centrowitz, and Matt Centrowitz Sr., all of whom paid tribute to Ryun and noted what an inspiration he was to their careers.

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Highlights, photos, and videos of the speeches below.

As for the party itself, it consisted of some outdoor mingling, some great BBQ, and a lot of distance running camaraderie. Rojo and Wejo discussed what the scene was like at the start of this week’s Track Talk podcast, which you can find here (and if you want to get an exclusive limited-time offer for joining the Founders Club, you have to listen to beginning of the podcast).

Four US 1500m Olympians (Matt, Matthew, Jim, and Alan)

Double Olympic champ Seb Coe memorized Ryun’s accomplishments as a schoolboy

Ned Ryun shared a story relayed to him by Peter Coe — father of World Athletics president and two-time Olympic 1500 champ Seb Coe — about how Coe’s affinity for Ryun once got him out of trouble at school.

“He was kind of being uppity in class, and the teacher was going to put him in his place. So the teacher called Sebastian and was intent on embarrassing Sebastian and said, ‘You feel like you know so much and can talk so much in class? You’re going to tell me exactly everything you know about Bakersfield, California.’ Sebastian goes to the front of the room and goes, ‘In 1967, Jim Ryun of the United States ran 3:51.1 in the mile [in Bakersfield] and broke the world record, which he had set previously in Berkeley, California, in 1966.’ Goes off for, like, three or four minutes. And then the teacher’s like, ‘all right, you’re done, sit down.’ Peter Coe thought that was hilarious — Sebastian had showed the teacher up because he was a big fan of my dad’s.”

Seb Coe also sent over a video tribute of his own.

“No athlete of my generation, particularly as a middle-distance runner, could have come through the sport without being inspired by your achievements,” Coe said in his message to Ryun. “A world record holder for the beloved mile at the age of 19, the youngest ever to hold that title. The greatest prep athlete of all time, in front of LeBron James and Tiger Woods. That in itself speaks volumes.”

Centro says he finished one book in high school: The Jim Ryun Story (and he read it dozens of times)

Centrowitz was out running when Ryun called to invite him to the White House, and when he saw the words “Jim Ryun” on his voicemail transcription service, he got excited. Though the two had exchanged texts and emails in the past — including an email from Ryun to Centro on the eve of the 2016 Olympic final — the two had not actually spoken until Centro called Ryun back.

Centro gave a touching speech on how much Ryun inspired him.

“I was over the moon just to get a phone call from him, let alone as I return his call, to be one of his guests today at the ceremony,” Centrowitz said. “So thank you for inviting me, this was a huge honor for me to be here in your presence.”

Centrowitz also said that reading about Ryun as a high schooler made him realize he could accomplish greatness — whether in running or some other endeavor — as long as he worked hard.

“My dad was a two-time Olympian and an American record holder before me, but the way he brought me into the sport was introducing me about you,” Centrowitz said in his speech to Ryun. “I wasn’t the best scholar in high school. I might have read one book, max, and certainly didn’t finish it — I at least started it. There was one book that my dad gave me that I have read at least a dozen times, and that’s The Jim Ryun Story. I could tell you almost every single workout, every single chapter. And that’s what really kind of got me into the sport and fall in love so much with track and field.”

Though Centrowitz graduated high school over 40 years after Ryun, he said it’s clear that Ryun remains an inspirational figure in American distance running.

“I know a lot of kids still look up to you,” Centrowitz said. “You being the LetsRun [greatest American distance] runner of all time obviously speaks volumes… I can keep talking all day about how great you are and how much you inspired me, but I just want to let you know, thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

(There is a gap in the middle of the Centro video above as a phone cut out briefly)

Webb and Centro Sr. shared their religious connection with Ryun & Centro makes it through a speech without cursing!

Webb began his remarks by talking about track and saying that, had he competed in the same era as Webb, Ryun might still be the high school record holder.

“I think it was the track that beat your record, because you were running on the cinders,” Webb said.

Webb’s speech then got emotional as on the verge of tears at times he said that more than any sort of running motivation, Ryun’s biggest impact on his life was helping him become a Christian

“What you did for me, after I broke your record, was that you encouraged me to pursue my faith in Jesus,” Webb said. “And that’s a gift that is worth more than any record, any medal, anything on this earth.”

During Webb’s career, Ryun gave him a signed Bible as a gift. Webb, in turn, signed the Bible himself and gifted it to Drew Hunter after Hunter broke Webb’s high school indoor mile record in 2016.

Matt Centrowitz Sr. –– who is known for occasionally being uncouth in his comments — had to be coaxed into giving a speech. The former American record holder at 5000 (13:12.91) also has a 1500 pedigree of his own as he made the 1976 Olympic team in the 1500.

“I’m a track coach from New York City and public speaking isn’t our way of doing things,” Centrowitz said. “We yell and scream and cut people off, we give them the finger now and then.”

But he had nothing but praise for Ryun — “he’s a legend everywhere he goes” — and said he, like Ryun, felt he had been pushed into the sport by God.

“Like Jim, we found running thanks to the spirit,” Centrowitz said. “We failed at everything else and God pushed us and directed us toward running, and we excelled. And I have found a beautiful way of life and beautiful people.”

Centrowitz concluded by saying, “I’d like to thank God and everyone here for inviting me and putting up with me this long and I’m happy I didn’t curse. I’m just happy.”

Steve Cram’s remarks

Photo Gallery

(And for those of you wondering about COVID-19 measures at the event: it was held outdoors, everyone who had been to the White House had been given a same-day COVID test which they passed, and while a few hands were shaken and a few fist bumps given, there was hand sanitizer on every table. The food buffet was served by people with masks).

Thanks to Ned and Becca Ryun for hosting a wonderful event.

For more on the Jim Ryun reception, Rojo and Wejo talked about it on this Track Talk podcast, which you can find here (and if you listen to the start of the podcast you can get an exclusive limited time offer for joining the Founders Club).

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