Oregon Mile Legend & Olympian Jim Grelle Passes Away
"My father had a 'laser focus'. He was humble, gracious, gregarious and he took what he had from running and used it in his life. There was this balance of instruction and a quiet voice."
By Peter John L. Thompson
The world of Track & Field Athletics is deeply saddened by the news that Olympian, James Edward (Jim) Grelle, the fourth American to run under 4 minutes for the Mile and a true running pioneer, passed peacefully on Saturday, June 13 at the age of 83. He had been under home hospice care for some months and was surrounded by close family.
During his illustrious career, Jim Grelle set U.S. records in the Mile, clocking a time of 3:55.4 in 1965, the indoor Mile with 4:03.6 in 1961 and in the 2 Mile, a distance that he rarely ran, but in 1966 tied with fellow legend Jim Ryun to record a time of 8:25.2. He was one of the first track & field athletes to have a “running career” after college and benefited from being coached by two world-renowned and innovative running coaches, Bill Bowerman and Mihály Iglói.
In Track & Field Athletics, the 1950s and '60s was the time for the Mile, inspired by Roger Bannister's breaking the 4 minute barrier in May 1954. It was only eight years later, in 1962, that Grelle ran his first sub-4 minute Mile, 3:59.9, at the Mt. SAC Relays. Such was Jim Grelle's performance abilities that he raced the Mile often and by 1967 had broken the 4 minute mark on a prodigious 21 occasions, the most "sub-4s" of any athlete in the world at that time. He was part of a golden era for American Mile racing when, in 1962, six of the top ten Milers in the world were Americans. This global success has never been matched since.
Jim Grelle was born in Portland, Oregon on September 30, 1936 and growing up would play with running, setting himself against imagined adversaries, around and within his neighborhood. But it was in 1952, as a Freshman at Portland's Lincoln High School that Jim Grelle really discovered he could run competitively, despite never having previously heard of Cross Country running. On the track, he chose the 880 yards run and ran well but, in that era, a Freshman could not run for Varsity, or in the State Championships. In his Sophomore year he recalls that he was, "3rd or 4th in the 880 at State." His Junior year saw him improve to take his first State title at the 880 yards run, in "about 2:01". He successfully defended his State title in 1955, his Senior year, reducing the State Meet record time from 1:59.9, down to 1:58.0. The fourth-place finisher was a Cleveland High School senior, Phil Knight.
Oregon's renowned coach, Bill Bowerman, recruited Grelle to run at the University of Oregon, where he was moved, unwillingly at first, to racing the Mile. As an Oregon Duck, he quickly developed, having many well-known runners and track & field athletes around him, including, as a 3-year teammate and frat brother, Phil Knight. Grelle learnt through his own experience that Bill Bowerman, "...really knew how to get people ready for May and June. All my best races, the whole four years of college, were at the national championships."
When the University of Oregon Milers finished first or second, or both, in the NCAA Championships during nine straight seasons, Jim Grelle played a significant part in that heritage. He was called the most durable of the Ducks’ string of distance standouts. He was at his best in the big meets, placing second in the 1957 and 1958 NCAA Championships Mile, both times behind Ron Delany, the 1956 Olympic 1500m Champion. In 1959, he crowned his collegiate career by winning the NCAA Championships Mile in 4:03.9.
In 1960, Jim Grelle won the National Championships 1500m and later qualified, as runner-up at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Palo Alto, CA, for the U.S. Olympic Team to compete in the Rome Olympic Games. In this introduction to the Olympic cauldron, he made the 9-man 1500m final by placing second in his heat in 3:43.5. The final, however, was intense from the gun as Herb Elliott of Australia front ran to the gold medal and a 3:35.6 world record performance. Grelle finished in 8th place, with 3:45.0, and set his sights firmly on future seasons and the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Following graduation from Oregon, Grelle had remained training in Eugene with coach Bowerman but then in 1961 he decided to make a move to Los Angeles, the new epicenter for the Mile. He joined the Los Angeles Track Club to be trained under the secretive and punishing regime of Hungarian coach, Mihály Iglói. According to author and fellow Oregon runner Kenny Moore, Iglói welcomed Grelle with 35 quarters in his first workout.
It is difficult to imagine, in these days of sponsored professional track & field athletes, what it must have been like to train so intensely and at such a volume twice a day, each day and work. Jim Grelle absorbed the training and was still able to hold down a demanding, full-time job with Colgate Palmolive. And, it proved productive when, in 1962, Iglói took his Los Angeles Track Club for a fabled tour of European meets, with Grelle running a personal record 3:56.7 in the Mile. "Everybody said the American runner is lazy, don't work," Iglói told Sports Illustrated. "Now the American distance runner is the best in the world."
Going into the 1964 U.S. Olympic Trials, Grelle was confident in his abilities but perhaps overlooked the threat from a precocious 17-year-old high schooler, Jim Ryun. In the closest of finishes for the first four athletes, Dyrol Burleson won in 3:41.2, followed by Tom O'Hara (3:41.5), and Ryun just edged out Grelle to take 3rd place, both timed at 3:41.9 but leaving Grelle in a non-qualifying 4th place. With typical good humor and acceptance, he re-focussed his season and made a move back to Portland.
He started competing for Portland's famed Multnomah Athletic Club and, now self-coached, continued to have competitive success up to and including the 1967 season, when he ran his 21st and final sub-4 Mile. He had been coached by two of the wold's best coaches and when he returned to Portland in 1965, it was natural that he would begin coaching others as well as himself. He started coaching at the University of Portland, where he continued until 1972.
When people speak of Jim Grelle it is with a clear memory. His son, Jim, recalls, "It was always said and said by all, that he enjoyed his running, competing against and the company of his fellow competitors." He explains, "My father had a 'laser focus'. He was humble, gracious, gregarious and he took what he had from running and used it in his life. There was this balance of instruction and a quiet voice."
A letter from a former competitor, Tom Sullivan, received by Jim & Jean Grelle in March of this year is perhaps illustrative of the stature and essential nature of the man. Tom wrote, "On June 2, 1961 I was invited out from Chicago to run in the prestigious Compton Invitational Track & Field Meet in Compton, CA. I was an 18-year old high school student who had the top prep half mile and Mile times in the country at that time...I surprised myself when I shot into the lead of the eight other runners in the race at the gun lap and could not believe I was still leading coming off the final turn with 100 meters to go. That is when you passed me and I still remember your encouraging words as you passed me. You said something like: "Come on Tommy, you can do it, follow me." We both ran close together and you beat me by only 0.8 seconds."
"I couldn't figure out why all the reporters and officials hovered around me and not you at the finish line. One reporter said: "Do you know what your time was?" It was 4:03.5. I broke the National High School record by 5.4 seconds and also claimed the World Junior (under 19 years of age) Mile record...I will always remember that evening, your sportsmanship assistance and encouragement to me."
In retirement, one of Grelle’s favorite weekly routines was meeting with a group of former runners and coaches “about my age and a little bit younger” for coffee. The group meets on Saturday mornings and conversation generally revolves around track and running.
Jim Grelle is survived by his wife, Jean (photo, left) and their two children, Jim & Leslie and two grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family ask you to please consider a tribute donation to one of the following: U of O Duck Athletic Fund; Billy Mills - Running Strong for American Indian Youth program; OSHU Foundation which can be marked for Neuroscience research.
Please note that Nike will double match for Nike employees during COVID-19 through Nike’s employee portal. For the above donations, Nike employees can include in “Memory of Jim Grelle” in the note section.
A special thank you to the wonderful care from Signature Hospice and Senior Helpers. A Celebration of Life will be scheduled at a later date.
He was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 1981, the only Lincoln High School track athlete to achieve this honor. He was also inducted into the Mt. SAC Relays Hall of Fame in 1991 and to the University of Oregon Hall of Fame in 1994. In addition, Jim Grelle made 20 international appearances for Team USA, over a 10-year period from 1958 to 1967.