If you watched last Sunday's track and field events to complete the roster of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, your heart perhaps went out to two 110-meter hurdlers -- Jack Pierce and Larry Harrington.
Both were long shots. Still they'd reached the big dance and had dreams of miraculous performances that would let them compete for America in Atlanta later this summer. Both got hung up on the first row of hurdles and couldn't even finish the race, won by Allen Johnson.
There was sympathy when a leg injury prevented superstar Gwen Torrence from making the U.S.'s top three in the 200-meter dash. But the feisty Torrence already had qualified for the team in the 100-meter dash and still had medal potential. To her credit, the controversial star handled the 200-meter disappointment like a champion, refusing to alibi or gesticulate.
But for my money, nobody has ever dealt with an Olympic setback as well as the late Clif(ton) Cushman, former Kansas star, did in 1964. In the fall of 1966, he was lost on an Air Force jet fighter mission in the Vietnam War, kbut Clif left us something to admire, appreciate and think about.
Recruited hard by Bill Easton, Clif came to KU from Grand Forks, N.D. A tall, willowy, blond kid, he was so versatile it was hard to figure how to use him . . . the quarter-mile, half-mile, mile, cross-country, metric hurdles? Clif could have been a great decathlon performer, but his specialty became the 400-meter hurdles.
Cushman was good enough to win a silver medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and vowed to capture a gold at the 1964 Games in Tokyo. By the time the '64 trial finals rolled around in Los Angeles, Clif was the odds-on favorite to win not only in LA but at Tokyo.
He tripped over the fifth hurdle in the finals and failed to make the team. It happened on national television, a la the Pierce and Harrington heartbreak. Letters and phone calls of sympathy poured in. He soon wrote a letter to be published in his home town newspaper in Grand Forks and in the Journal-World.
Titled "I Dare You," it said:
- "Don't feel sorry for me.
"You may have seen the U.S. Olympic trials on television. . . . 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 fall knowing I had put forth an honest effort than never to have tried at all.
"This is not to say that everyone 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 makeup and ducktail grease-cuts? . . . (Note to readers: Consider the additional temptations and pitfalls which have emerged over the past 32 years.)
"Over 15 years ago (1949), 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. 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 step followed by one more, and more more, until the steps turn into the miles and miles of success.
"I know I may hever 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 inspirational meaning to me in this regard: ' . . . we rejoice in our suffering, 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 freedoms 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 in class, the wonderful feeling of completing a job, any job, and looking back on it knowing 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 mother and father. I dare you to go to church without having to be compelled to go by your parents. I dare you to unseflishly 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 the 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 wonds and take one more step.
"I dare you." . . . Sincerely, Clifton E. Cushman.
- Clif enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, achieved fighter pilot status and rose to the rank of major. In April of 1966, at age 28, he was appropriately honored at the Kansas Relays for his athletic feats and citizenship. That September, he was listed as missing in action after a sortie over enemy territory. He left a wife and son, and to this day he remains officially listed as missing in action. No trace of Clif has been found.
But he left something us much more than track and academic records with his "I Dare You" challenge, as appropriate in 1996 as it was 32 years ago.