100 days of Kansas City-area Olympians: Cliff Cushman, hurdles

Cliff Cushman Air Force.jpg
KU hurdles Cliff Cushman.jpg
Posted at 8:00 AM, Jun 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-20 09:01:02-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Cliff Cushman was a national champion at the University of Kansas and won a silver medal during the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Cushman, who finished high school in North Dakota, finished second in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1959 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, helping the Jayhawks win the first team title in program history.

As a senior in 1960, Cushman was a captain, he won an NCAA 400 hurdles title and helped KU repeat as national champions.

The following summer, Cushman finished 0.3 seconds behind Glenn Davis in the 400 hurdles during the Olympic final, finishing second as part of a U.S. podium sweep.

His hopes to return to the Olympics in 1964 ended with a stumble over a hurdle during the Olympics Trials.

Cushman famously penned a letter in the Grand Forks Herald after the Olympic Trials disappointment, urging his young fans not to feel sorry for him but to instead set goals for themselves.

Two years later, while serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, Cushman’s F105 Thunderchief was shot down by anti-aircraft artillery on Sept. 25, 1966, over North Vietnam.

Officially, Cushman was listed as missing in action. The Department of Defense declared him presumed dead in November 1975.

His body was not recovered, and it remains unclear to this day if he survived the plane crash and was captured or died as the plane broke apart, based on eyewitness testimony from another squad member.

Cushman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest decoration for combat valor; the Distinguished Flying Cross; two Air Medals and a Purple Heart.

He has been inducted into the KU Athletics Hall of Fame.

In 1990, Cushman was inducted into the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Central Athletic Hall of Fame and the school’s football stadium was named Cushman Field.

The Kansas City region has a deep, rich history with respect to the Olympic Games. As the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games approach with the Opening Ceremony scheduled for July 23, we will profile an athlete with ties to Kansas City, Missouri or Kansas each day.

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