Pursuit of excellence

Defeat weighs heavily when a goal once nearly attained suddenly recedes beyond reach. Athletes probably know this better than most others.

Clifton E. Cushman was one of America's promising athletes, setting records in high school that still stand after more than 40 years. At the 1960 Olympics, he won the silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles, and seemed assured of a gold medal in the next Games. However, he tripped over a hurdle and was eliminated during the American trials for the 1964 Olympics. In response to messages of condolence, he wrote an open letter to the youth of his hometown, Grand Forks, N.D.Though not of our faith, Mr. Cushman apparently shared many of our values. In his letter to the youth, he described the "inglorious heap of skinned elbows, bruised hips, torn knees" that many saw as they witnessed his defeat on television broadcasts of the trials. "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 put forth an honest effort than never to have tried at all," he wrote.

Acknowledging that not everyone is capable of making the Olympic team, he went on to tell the young people that they were capable of trying to make their own "personal Olympic team," whether it be the football team, glee club, honor roll or whatever else they pursued.

In a matter-of-fact style, he wrote that there was nothing he could do about his fall in the trials that led to his failure to achieve the "star - first place in the Olympic Games" that he literally had run after for 15 years. Nothing except "to 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 miles and the miles into success."

While the odds were against him, he wrote, he did have something in his favor - desire and faith. "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? . . .

"Some 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 and knowing that you have done your best."

He gave some challenges: "I dare you to have your hair cut and not wilt under the comments of your so-called friends. . . . Clean up your language. . . . Honor your mother and father. . . . Go to church without having to be compelled to go by your parents. . . . Unselfishly help someone less fortunate than yourself and enjoy the wonderful feeling that goes with it. . . . Become physically fit. . . . Read a book that is not required in school. . . . 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." ("Open Letter to the Youth of Grand Forks," courtesy Grand Forks Public Schools, Athletic Department.)

Mr. Cushman never got the chance to make another attempt at his Olympic goal. In 1966, he was listed as missing in action in Vietnam; in 1975, the U.S. Department of Defense officially declared him as presumed killed in action. A sports complex in Grand Forks is named in his honor.

Few endeavors warrant more respect than the pursuit of excellence. All of us should have goals to which we aspire. What makes a lofty goal for one might provide no challenge for another. In a recent class, members of a Relief Society listed their goals. One woman said, "I want to be able to run a marathon." Another immediately responded, "I want to be able to run around the block!" Everyone laughed, but the message came across: two women, two different goals.

Some people make little effort to raise their sights, to focus on a star and pursue it. Maybe they desire perfection, but knowing that few achieve it they don't make the attempt. They guarantee that they won't face the embarrassment of failure by not making an attempt for success!

But facing challenges - even if we don't always meet them - often leads to our greatest growth. For example, don't we usually turn to the Lord when we face our biggest disappointments? What greater growth is there than growing closer to Him?

Difficulties or even failure in reaching certain goals often lead us to opportunities that we might miss in more successful circumstances. If we take advantage of those opportunities, most likely, we will discover we have grown. At that point, we can see the progress we have made and, with confidence, successfully move on to greater accomplishments. Growth and strength come as we face - and wrestle with - challenges. Avoiding them makes us weaker.

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