Imagine being told as a child you may never be able to walk again and that you may have to spend the rest of your life as an amputee. Imagine going from there to winning a medal at the Olympic Games.
When he was eight years old, Glenn Cunningham saw his world come crashing down. In 1917, Cunningham nearly lost his legs after a fire accident in his hometown of Kansas. He saw his sibling Floyd die as a result of that incident and when Cunningham was admitted to the hospital, doctors suggested amputation because the burns were severe and spread of infection was feared.
However, overcoming adversity and all odds, Cunningham went on to become one of the greatest middle-distance runners of the 20th century.
Popularly known as the Iron Man of Kansas, Cunningham created several world records in the 1930s. He represented USA at two Olympics and clinched a silver medal at the 1936 edition.
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Cummingham and his brother were in charge of heating the classroom at the Rolla Sunflower country school before the teachers and other students would arrive. But disaster struck one day when someone accidentally poured gasoline in the kerosene container and when the two brothers went to heat the coal stove, an explosion took place.
“A blinding flash seared my eyes and made my head swim,” Cunningham wrote in his book, aptly titled Never Quit. “An awful force, as if from hell itself, hurled me painfully back against the wall. Dimly I heard Floyd scream, ‘I’m on fire’.”
He added: “I tried to open my eyes to see what was happening. I couldn’t. Nothing but black-red, stabbing pain raced down the throbbing corridors of my mind. Suddenly I realised it, I’m burning too.”
There was, however, nothing that stopped him from believing that he could walk again.
“When they looked at my legs the doctor thought they should amputate my legs because they said if I got an infection I not only lose my legs, I lose my life,” he is quoted as saying in the book American Miler: The Life and Times of Glenn Cunningham. “Even though the doctors said I’d never walk, he couldn’t convince me because I knew I was going to be able to walk again.”
With the help of his parents and other siblings, Cunningham would eventually recover from the tragedy. Ointments and massages aided his recovery but it was over a year before he could walk again. And running not only provided him with the hope to live again but a passion to follow.
“My family was wonderful,” he said.
“I can’t even imagine how horrible it must have been with all the smells and the sight of my rotting flesh. I had lost all the flesh on my knees and shins, as well as all the toes on my left foot. My transverse arch was mostly gone. Yet my family kept changing the dressings and massaging my legs, though there was little muscle and sinew left to massage. Even after I was able to stand, holding onto either the bed or a chair, a neighbour kid said, “Aw, you ain’t never gonna walk again!” But by then I knew that nothing was going to stop me.”
Making a mark
His talent shone through early when just at 12 years of age, he had defeated all the runners in high school. With years of practice and hard work, Cunningham got better, although his legs remained scarred.
During his senior year in high school, he created a new state record for the mile: clocking 4:28.3 in Manhattan. During the 1930s, he won two National Collegiate Athletic Association titles alongside clinching eight Amateur Athletic Union national titles at Kansas university.
Having built a reputation as one of the finest runners in his country, Cunningham would go on to compete in the 1500m event at the 1932 Olympics. He narrowly missed out on a medal as he finished fourth but Cunningham continued to scale new peaks in his athletics career despite the disappointment. Later, he also set a new world record while competing in the 1000-yard run.
Cunningham was at his peak by the time he made his second Olympic appearance at Berlin in 1936. He did not disappoint, setting a new US record at the event by clocking 3:48.4 but fell short of New Zealand’s Jack Lovelock who topped the podium. Nearly two weeks later, after his biggest performance on the world stage, the American created a 800m world record of 1:49.7 that was untouched for three years.
Another world record in indoor mile run was set by Cunningham in 1938 after he clocked 4:04.4. During that time, Cunningham had twelve of the fastest thirty-one track records to his name and all this while he was completing his PhD degree in biology, health, and physical education. He announced retirement in 1940.
His love for the sport didn’t waver even after he hung up his boots. Cunningham taught physical education at Cornell University before joining the US Navy. He was later inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1979. He died on March 10, 1988 at the age of 78.
From being almost crippled as a child to creating world records and going on to win a medal at the Olympics, Cunningham’s career remains an inspiration for athletes.