It was a typically freezing morning in February 1916 as little Glenn, all of six years old, and older brother Floyd arrived at their schoolhouse in Kansas. After walking two miles from home, they were now set to begin their regular chore of lighting the large iron stove to warm up the room before the teacher and other students arrived.
THE VOICE WITHIN
After loading the stove, they poured kerosene over the firewood and Floyd struck a match. They had been doing this without a hitch so far. What they did not know was that someone this time had mistakenly filled the jerrycan with gasoline...
In the terrible blaze that followed, Floyd succumbed. Glenn woke up in hospital, writhing with horrific burn injuries. All the toes on his left foot were gone, the transverse arch of the foot was ravaged, the flesh on his knees and shins had been burnt away, his right leg left a twisted stump two inches shorter than his left leg.
Doctors advised amputation of his legs, but Glenn’s mother would not hear of it. After a long stay, he was sent home with crutches and a wheelchair. His parents now took turns to massage his legs, and he would take over after they grew tired.
Three years passed. One day in the summer of 1919, Glenn’s mother wheeled him into the yard for fresh air, and left him there. When she came back, she saw him crawling over the grass to the picket fence, raise himself up and drag himself along, stoutly refusing all help.
Determined he would be no cripple, Glenn kept on struggling. Months later, he was up and walking, leaving his doctors astonished. But there arose another difficulty.
“It hurt like thunder to walk, but it didn’t hurt at all when I ran. So for five or six years, about all I did was run. I didn’t move 10 feet without breaking into a run,” he would reminisce later. It was more like hopping fast than running, but before long, he came to be called the ‘Kansas Flyer’.
At school and later at varsity, young Glenn began to set the track on fire, setting record after record. He maintained the same pace in his studies, graduating from University of Kansas in 1933 with the highest academic marks in his class.
Squaring off against top runners at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 16 June, 1934, Glenn Cunningham smashed the world record for the fastest indoor mile, clocking 4 minutes and 8 seconds. That year itself, he would also run the world’s fastest outdoor mile. Competitors were left biting the dust due to his strategy of running the second half of the race faster than the first half!
Going on to take a PhD in physical education, Dr Glenn V Cunningham served as physical education director at Cornell College, and also had a stint in US vy. He would later help thousands of poor, troubled youths at his centre set up in a sprawling ranch in Kansas.
He would often quote the words from holy Bible that inspired his fightback and invested him with greatness: “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.” (Isaiah chapter 40, verse 31)