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Track legend tells a quiet tale

Published Oct. 6, 2005

In his day, he was the fastest miler on the planet.

Yet Jim Ryun often sped off without hearing the click of the starting pistol. He frequently missed split times being called out by race officials.

And when the 6-foot-3, 140-pound Kansas schoolboy should have been focusing on a point ahead of him, Ryun was instead craning over his shoulder to see if an opponent was closing the gap.

"I had to," Ryun explains. "I couldn't hear the footsteps."

Born with a 50 percent loss of hearing in both ears, Ryun ran in near-silence. Doctors said there was nothing they could do.

Then, three years ago, he went in for one more exam. This time, he was fitted with a programable, high-tech hearing aid in each ear.

At age 43, Ryun was suddenly enveloped by a world of sound. He cried.

Now, he takes his story cross-country. Underwritten by the ReSound hearing aid company, his mission is to help handicapped children know that they, too, can excel.

On Friday, Ryun stopped in Pinellas County and spent the morning with 30 hearing-impaired children at Cross Bayou Elementary School.

"Before I got these," he said, pointing to his hearing aids, "I'd never heard the sound of geese overhead in Kansas. I'd never really heard the sound of water coming out of a spigot. I didn't know the sound of fizz when you open a can of pop.

"That's what many of these children are going through. They're missing out on so much."

Ryun was the first high school runner to break the 4-minute mile, and after 29 years, his schoolboy mark of 3:55.3 still stands. His world record in the mile, 3:51.1, set when he was 20, stood for nine years. He also set world records in the half-mile and at 1,500 meters.

Now a 46-year-old father of four, Ryun has filled out to 180 pounds, but he still can turn a 5:30 mile. He's scheduled to run in this morning's 5-K race in downtown Tampa at 10:30, after the Gasparilla Distance Classic.

With the help of an interpreter, Ryun told the Cross Bayou children he had been afraid to speak in class and gotten bad grades because he couldn't hear.

He let them watch a videotape of ABC's Wide World of Sports. It showed Ryun running to a mile world record, then fumbling an answer in an interview because he couldn't fully hear Keith Jackson's question.

Later, Ryun led the children in some stretches and runs on the playground. During one run, he bent down and slowed to a walk when a youngster asked that he hold his hand. He smiled and applauded as the children charged across the playground in a relay race.

Then he sat and patiently signed posters and plastic squeeze bottles. Each time, he wrote, "Go with God," a motto he adopted after becoming a born-again Christian prior to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany.

Those games remain Ryun's biggest disappointment. Favored to win a gold medal in the 1,500, Ryun was clipped by another runner and fell into the infield during a preliminary heat. At the top of his form, he was suddenly out of the Olympics.

Did his hearing figure in the accident in Munich? No, Ryun says, it was just bad luck.

Yet Ryun views Munich as a defining moment.

"I could've become just another gold medalist in the 1,500 meters," he said. "Instead, I learned something about character. And character lasts a lifetime."

In an era when a widening chasm separates the fan and the millionaire athlete, Ryun remains the genuine article: a role model who doesn't have to pretend he cares. The way he threw back his head and laughed in the children's relay races Friday shows that.

Ryun is proud of his accomplishments on the track, but he treasures his work with handicapped children the way an Olympian regards gold.

"The world records were just a calling card that opened a door for me," he said. "It's what you do when you get inside the door that counts.

"To help children like these get through the very tough times they're going to have, that's the best I can do."