Inspirational Athletes

A Champion Emerges from the Fire: Glenn Cunningham

“He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Many of history’s most accomplished athletes began their pursuit of athletic greatness at a very young age. However, for a seven-year-old Glenn Cunningham, a future in sports seemed out of the question.

Why? Because at that young age, Glenn had narrowly evaded death in a horrific 1916 fire accident that claimed the life of his older brother Floyd, and left Glenn in critical condition—so critical, in fact, that after he was examined by doctors, they recommended a leg amputation in order to increase his chances of survival.

Glenn’s parents, however, decided against the amputation, and hoped for the best. And fortunately, their son did recover from the near-death episode, with leg intact, after a six-week stay in the hospital.

But although he did survive, the effects of the fire had clearly taken their toll: the arches on both of his feet were damaged, the toes on his left foot were nearly burned off, and his right leg was a few inches shorter than his left one. Doctor wondered if he would ever walk again, but a determined Glenn went home and began steadily rehabilitating his injuries.

The typical seven-year-old would have probably been overwhelmed with feelings of despair. Glenn, however, was not.

After weeks of practice, he gained a minor victory when he walked with crutches. Several months later, he was able to stand on his own. And nine months after that, he could once again walk without crutches.

Strangely enough, however, although walking caused him great pain, running hardly hurt at all. And so, as Glenn would later remark, “For five or six years, about all I did was run.”

At the age of twelve, the constantly running Glenn won a race against several of his schoolmates. Decades later, he would call that race the biggest of his life—a monumental statement considering the races to come in his future.

By the time he reached high school, Glenn was a solid multi-sport athlete, competing in football, basketball, and track, despite the fact that he required long extensive warm-ups before any athletic activities due to the various circulation problems caused by his childhood accident. *

After running a world high school record 4:24.7 mile during his senior year, Glenn attended the University of Kansas, and as a member of their track team, soon established himself as an elite world athlete.

Glenn Cunningham (Illustrator: Thomas Mesenbring Field)

Then, in 1933—sixteen years after the horrific fire accident that left doctors wondering if he would ever be able to walk again—Glenn Cunningham set a world record for the mile with a time of 4:06.7.

In the years that followed, he continued his legendary track career, winning numerous races, and running a career best 4:04.4 mile in an unsanctioned 1938 exhibition race.

That same year, he also earned a Ph.D. in physical education at New York University. He taught physical education at Cornell University from 1940 to 1944, and later joined the Navy, where he attained the lieutenant rank, helped create physical training programs in several Navy stations, and visited many military hospitals in order to encourage wounded soldiers.

But perhaps even more notable than all of Glenn’s aforementioned achievements was his work helping thousands of underprivileged youths over a span of more than three decades. With the help of his wife, he began housing children on his ranch in Kansas (later named the Glenn Cunningham Youth Ranch) in 1946, funding the entire operation out of his own pocket for years, even though he had to skimp on personal expenses to do so.

Glenn was later able to gain financial assistance for the ranch, and eventually donated land in Arkansas to start another one. Over his lifetime, he was able to help raise well over 10,000 underprivileged youths, as well as the twelve children he fathered himself over the course of two marriages.

Glenn Cunningham died in 1988 at the age of 78. Known for his strong character and conviction, he left an incredible legacy of personal achievements and humanitarian efforts.

In a 1970s interview, he remarked, “As long as you believe you can do things, they’re not impossible.” *

Inspirational Athletes