Crippled Glenn Cunningham Became an Olympian

Glenn Cunningham was just 7 years old when he nearly died in an explosion that killed his brother.  He had gone to his one-room school with his several siblings one cold January morning.  Finding the school empty and cold, Glenn’s brother Floyd started to light a fire in the small coal stove.  Floyd didn’t know the stove had some hot coals in it from the previous night’s community meeting, or that the Kerosine-labelled can really contained gasoline.  Fire exploded out of the stove as soon as Floyd began pouring the fuel.  Flames burned Floyd terribly, and reached Glenn’s legs as he stood nearby.  They both ran the 2 miles home through the snow and were put to bed while the children went to find their mother.

The doctor that attended Glenn and Floyd told their parents that Floyd would not live—the burns were too severe.  But Glenn would probably live unless infection set in.  Either way, the doctor warned the family that Glenn would never walk again.  His legs were useless now.

But Glenn didn’t want to be a burden on his family.  After overhearing a neighbor tell his mother to face the fact that he would be an invalid the rest of his life, Glenn made an important decision.  He would walk again.  Fortunately, his mother believed him when he tearfully told her this.  And Glenn resolved to walk again, no matter how much it hurt or how hard it was to do.  He would repeat, “I’ll walk!  I’ll walk,” when he’d lose courage.

Glenn remembered, “My family was wonderful. 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.”

After his legs healed, Glenn started to work on walking.  His first hurdle was standing, then moving.  He would stand up holding onto a kitchen chair, pushing it slowly before him.  He called that ‘walking’ and practiced until he was too tired to continue.  Later he got outside and walked along the fence, holding on so he didn’t fall.  His legs were twisted and he seemed to walk ‘crooked.’  He was just glad he was walking!   His favorite scripture was Isaiah 40:31: “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Soon he was grabbing the tail of the family mule when they went for water.  He’d try to stay up with the mule as he ambled along.  And he’d play with his siblings however he could.  When he was able to go outdoors, his dad assigned him chores again.  It was great for Glenn to be useful!  Glenn was walking!  Now he set his sights to running.  After all, he wasn’t yet 10 years old and running was part of being a kid, part of playing with friends.  Besides, it hurt less to run than walk.  Glenn said that walking felt like daggers in his feet, running felt better.  All the while, Glenn kept massaging his scarred, twisted legs and continued to try to run.  If his legs were stretched out by massaging first, he could run pretty well.  His legs didn’t seem so twisted and only infrequently would they just give out from under him.

Glenn’s family moved a lot as they tried to make a living as farmers.  After moving to another small town, he found himself a mile from the school.  Most kids that lived that far brought lunch but Glenn ran home to eat.  That was good for his legs.

One day he saw a race advertized in the downtown store window.  He quietly entered the race and won.  He said, “I showed up at the track meet in my work-clothes and thick-soled canvas sneakers. I was a fourth grader, and most of the others were high school athletes. All of them wore running shorts and spiked running shoes. I must have looked like David lined up against all the giants, but I won going away!”   Glenn was officially a runner!

Glenn cemented in his mind that he wanted to become a doctor like his grandfather, and that he wanted to run in the Olympics.  He had some trouble with his schoolwork and getting credit for 4th grade, and missed all of 5th grade in Colorado.  His hopes of going to college to become a doctor were a longshot.  But so had been walking, and now he was running!  He kept his hopes alive and when they moved back to Elkhart, Indiana, he got back into his studies even while working.

Amazingly, with no toes on his left foot and scarred legs, Glenn also played on his high school football team!  He enjoyed all sports, knowing that with some massage and stretching, he could now do what most other kids did—run and play!  His rehabilitation amazes us today but Glenn didn’t make a big deal about it.  Most people didn’t even realize he had conquered so much to be there.

Glenn made it to college, refusing to accept a scholarship to attend.  Instead he worked his way through.  He didn’t want to owe anyone anything.  He ran on the track team, gaining the attention of the coach.  Glenn ran so fast that they thought he’d be able to break the 4 minute mark.  His best time was 4:04 set in 1938.  Remember that Roger Bannister finally broke the 4 minute mile in 1954.

Glenn ran in the 1932 Los Angeles and in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, as he had dreamed as a boy.  He won Silver in the 1500 meter race in Berlin.  He retired from running in 1940 after the Olympics were cancelled due to the war.  Many still consider him the greatest American miler of all time.

Eventually he became a doctor, married and raised a family of 10 children.  He and his wife created a home for wayward boys that helped thousands of boys with dashed dreams reach them.  For years he was a motivation speaker.  When people asked him about his burns, he said, “My mother and father had always brought us up to never complain. I was asked to do a lot of speeches through the years, and I often talked about overcoming challenges, but I just always figured that I needed to do my best and never quit. Complaining about something I had no control over would have diminished what I was trying to do. I just wanted to let my running speak for itself.”

Glenn shows us that we can do anything if we are determined enough to back our dreams with hard work.  And rely on the Lord to help us.  Hang in there and keep working hard to beat your challenges.


Cunningham, Glenn with George X. Sand.  Never Quit Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1981.

Glenn Cunningham Wikipedia

Hicks, Darryl.  Glenn Cunningham1909-1988—Never Quit 1981: 4 Aug 2009.

Kiell, Paul J.  American Miler:  The Life and Times of Glenn Cunningham New York: 2005.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, Copyright expired

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