There was a boy who was born a few years ahead of me, in the United States of America. I was born on the east coast, on the Atlantic seaboard. He was born in the Midwest, in Kansas. He had polio. He could not walk. He was in a wheelchair, living in a farmhouse, in Kansas.
One day a fire broke out on the farm. Everyone ran out to save the chickens and the ducks and the pigs and the cows and the horses. While they were doing this, the fire got into the farmhouse. The little boy was 7 years old, in a wheelchair, trapped in the flames. The wheelchair caught fire. He could not get out of it. They got him before he was dead, but he was very badly burned, especially his legs. He spent 2 years in a hospital while they grafted skin over the burns.
Now he had double jeopardy – polio and burns. When he was 9 years old, the doctor who was taking care of him said to his mother, within hearing of the boy, “Alright! So he has polio. But it is not the kind of polio that would keep him in that wheelchair forever! If he exercises regularly, someday he should be able to walk. The important thing is don’t let the muscles atrophy. Don’t let the bones calcify! Exercise!”
The boy heard that. He was determined that he would not be a cripple all his life. So they brought parallel bars into his kitchen, and every morning the boy would get up on those parallel bars and try to walk. The small sounds of pain that he made while he was doing this were so terrible that his mother could not stand it. She would go out of the kitchen. When he finished his exercise, each morning he was covered with perspiration, and white with pain, but every day he did it.
When he was 10, he could stand alone. He put his hand on the furniture and began to move around the farmhouse, holding onto things. When he was 11, he went outside, into the sunlight. He put his hand on top of the railing of the wooden fence that ran around the farm, and began to walk. When he was 12, he let go of the railing. That year he began to jog.
At 21, he was the world champion for the mile.
This was Glenn Cunningham, one of the few runners, in the history of track, who was NEVER defeated. Everything about Glenn Cunningham mystified the sports writers, especially those reporters who did not know his background.
First, he did not look like a miler! The milers are usually tall and lean, with a long stride. Cunningham was built like refrigerator. He had broad shoulders and powerful arms. He had a chest like a barrel. His legs were like telegraph poles.
Secondly, he did not act like a runner! Track men were usually “transparent”. They are high strung and emotional. If a runner is feeling good, you can see it in his eyes, in his face, in his whole body. When a track man is suffering, he registers agony like the crucifixion on Good Friday. The boys are not acting. It is just the way they are. They operate at maximum effort, and they forget the way they look. Glenn Cunningham was a deadpan runner. Absolutely no emotion. When he ran, his face was stoic, like a wooden Indian. You could never tell, by looking at Cunningham, whether he was happy of sad.
Third, his warm up! He would come out on the track exactly 1 hour before his event, and begin his calisthenics. It was 1 hour, nonstop. Once a reporter ignored the rest of the track meet, and only watched Cunningham. He was running 5 miles, before his lined up for his event.
Fourth, the way he ran! He never ran for time. He ran to win. Whoever was 1st in the race, Cunningham was 2nd. He followed the pacesetter. If another runner passed the pacesetter, so did Cunningham. He ran 2nd to the pacesetter – until they reached the bell lap. It is called the bell lap because when the 1st runner enters the last lap, a bell goes off. In big meets, they fire a gun.
When they reached the bell lap, Cunningham would pass the leader, and start his sprint. When he did this, then no one among mortal men could stay with Glenn Cunningham. The great runners of his day tried! They knew what they were up against. He always ran in exactly the same way. But no one could stay with him. HE was undefeated, all his life. They only found out what made Cunningham tick – what he was really like – when he was 24 years old, and running in the Mill Rose Games, in New York City. At 7:00 in the evening the crowd was pouring in to Madison Square Garden, and down under the stands, in the dressing room, Cunningham was laying on the rubbing table, with the bright lights on, and the doctors working on his ankle. He had sprained his ankle that morning.
He said to the doctors, “Is there any chance that I will run tonight?” The doctors said, “None!”
Cunningham was worried. He said, “That’s to bad. Because people are coming to see me run.” It was true. He was from the Midwest and rarely ran on the east coast. The crowd was pouring into see Cunningham run.
He said to the doctors, “If I try to run, would it hurt the ankle?” The doctors said, “Well no. We have the ankle taped. But you could not stand the pain. Every time you put that foot down, the pain will shoot up through the leg into the body – you could never stand it. No chance that you will run.”
Cunningham said, “Well if it is only the pain, I would like to give it a try.”
So, he took his shoes, and went out on the track 1 hour before his event, and began his calisthenics. They have pictures of Cunningham that night, running around a turn. You cannot tell by looking at him whether he is happy or sad. Wooden Indian. Absolutely no emotion. Deadpan.
There was only one difference that night, for the 1st time, when the starting gun went off, Cunningham shot out like a rabbit. He was far ahead of the pack at the first turn. He lapped the field. He passed the last runner. In the Mill Rose Games, this feat was out of the world. All of the runners were champions or they would not be there.
That night, Glenn Cunningham broke the world record for the 1,500 metes. Whenever he put that foot down, the pain shot up through his body. It had only one effect on him – he ran faster.
Then the sports writers understood many things. He needed that hour or warm-up because he was a cripple. He needed that much time to get bones and muscles operating normally. He was a deadpan runner because he ran in pain often. To show the way he felt would have been too hard on the spectators. He learned to walk in pain. When he broke the world record for the 1,500 meters, he was doing what he had been doing since he was 9 years old.
This is the champion. Glenn Cunningham was a man.
James B. Reuter, S.J.