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Know Your KU History: Cliff Cushman

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This is the story of one of the most inspiring athletes to ever compete at Kansas.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The University of Kansas has a great history and tradition in track and field. Cliff Cushman is a big reason why. The Grand Forks, North Dakota native graduated from high school in 1956 and headed directly to burgeoning track powerhouse Kansas. In Cushman’s second season in Lawrence, the team finished as NCAA runners up in 1958.

The 1959 season was the year that Cushman really broke onto the national track and field scene. He finished that year as the national runner up in the 400-meter hurdles and helped Kansas win its first ever team national championship in men’s track and field. He improved upon this in his senior season of 1960. That year, he was named the captain of the team, won the individual crown in the 400 hurdles, and helped KU to their second consecutive team title. Oh yeah, he also qualified for the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

In Rome, he competed in the 400-meter hurdles and won a silver medal as the United States swept the medals in that category. He missed out on the gold by three tenths of a second, but his future was looking bright. He was the odds on favorite to grab gold in the 1964 games in Tokyo.

But, that dream never came to fruition, as Cushman never made it to Tokyo. In fact, he never made it out of the US Olympic trials that season. In the qualifying race, Cushman hit the fifth hurdle and went tumbling down to the track, his Olympic dreams dashed. But this event is the event that separates Cushman from most other people. Instead of wallowing in pity and sorrow, he looked on the bright side. Cushman knew there would be disappointment stemming from his fall, so he wrote an open letter to friends and strangers alike in his hometown of Grand Forks and rather than paraphrasing or summarizing the letter, I feel it is stronger if read as a whole. The letter:

"Don't feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for some of you! You may have seen the U.S. Olympic Trials on television Sept. 13. If so, you watched me hit the fifth hurdle, fall and lie on the track in an inglorious heap of skinned elbows, bruised hips, torn knees and injured pride, unsuccessful in my attempt to make the Olympic team for the second time.

"In a split second all the many years of training, pain, sweat, blisters and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out. But I tried! I would much rather fail knowing I had to put forth an honest effort than never to have tried at all.

"This is not to say that everybody is capable of making the Olympic team. However, each of you is capable of trying to make your own personal Olympic team, whether it be the high school football team, the glee club, the honor roll, or whatever your goal may be.

"Unless your reach exceeds your grasp, how can you be sure what you can attain? And don't you think there are things better than cigarettes, hot rod cars, school dropouts, excessive make-up and ducktail grease cuts?

"Over 15 years ago I saw a star -- first place in the Olympic Games. I literally started to run after it. In 1960, I came within three yards of grabbing it; this year I stumbled, fell and watched it recede four more years away.

"Certainly, I was very disappointed in falling flat on my face. However, there is nothing I can do about it now but get up, pick the cinders from my wounds and take one more step followed by one more and one more, until the steps turn into the miles and the miles of success.

"I know I may never make it. The odds are against me, but I have something in my favor -- desire and faith. Romans 5: 3-5 has always had an inspiration to me in this regard: "... we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.' At least I am going to try.

"How about you? Would a little extra effort on your part bring up your grade average? Would you have a better chance to make the football team if you stayed an extra 15 minutes after practice and worked on your blocking?

"Let me tell you something about yourselves. You are taller and heavier than any past generation in this country. You are spending more money, enjoying more freedom and driving more cars than ever before, yet many of you have never known the satisfaction of doing your best in sports, the joy of excelling the class, the wonderful feeling of completing a job, any job, and looking back on it knowing that you have done your best.

"I dare you to have your hair cut and not wilt under the comments of your so-called friends. I dare you to clean up your language. I dare you to honor your father and mother. I dare you to go to church without having to be compelled to go by your parents.

"I dare you to unselfishly help someone less fortunate than yourself and enjoy the wonderful feeling that goes with it. I dare you to become physically fit. I dare you to read a book that is not required in school. I dare you to look up at the stars, not down at the mud, and set your sights on one of them that up to now, you thought was unattainable. There is plenty of room at the top, but no room for anyone to sit down.

"Who knows? You may be surprised at what you can achieve with sincere effort. So get up, pick the cinders out of your wounds and take one more step."

Cliff Cushman never competed on the track again. Instead, he enlisted in the US Air Force and was deployed to Vietnam. By all accounts, he was a brave and dedicated airman. His plane was shot down in September 1966. He was never found and was officially declared deceased in 1975.

It was a sad end to a great life, but in the end, Cliff Cushman is a man that everyone in these parts can be proud to call a Jayhawk.