Blue Angels widow runs her first marathon in husband’s memory

Capt. Jeff Kuss with his wife Christina. Kuss died in a plane crash during a Blue Angels practice run in June 2016. (Courtesy of Christina Kuss)
Jeff and Christina Kuss are seen together. (Courtesy of Christina Kuss)
Jeff Kuss with his children Calvin (now 5) and Sloane (now 2). “Jeff was a family man,” says Christina. “It was always family first.”   (Courtesy of Christina Kuss)
Jeff Kuss is seen with his son Calvin.   (Courtesy of Christina Kuss)
Jeff Kuss celebrates his son Calvin’s birthday. (Courtesy of Christina Kuss)
Jeff Kuss plays with his children Calvin and Sloane. (Courtesy of Christina Kuss)
Jeff Kuss is seen spending time with his family. (Courtesy of Christina Kuss)
Jeff Kuss with his children Calvin (now 5) and Sloane (now 2). “Jeff was a family man,” says Christina. “It was always family first.”
Jeff Kuss is pictured with Calvin and Sloane. (Courtesy of Christina Kuss)
Jeff Kuss with his children Calvin (now 5) and Sloane (now 2). “Jeff was a family man,” says Christina. “It was always family first.”

WASHINGTON — June 2, 2016.

“I hope that was the worst day of my life,” said Joe Schwartz, a Front Royal doctor with the Navy, who was a flight surgeon with the famous Blue Angels. He was matched up with Capt. Jeff Kuss. Their duties brought them and their families close. In that line of work, it had to be that way.

“They’re looking for a very special relationship,” Schwartz said about the process of becoming a part of the Blue Angels team.

As a “flight doc,” as he calls it, “primary care is job number one, but 80 percent of the time of being a flight doc for the Blue Angels specifically is involved with their demonstration. You know the thing front and back. You sit down in a communications suite … and you’re on the radio with the maintenance officer actually, with the pilots. Your job is keeping those guys safe in the air and grading them while they’re flying so that you can take your video back to them during the debrief and give them pointers about how they can make the show look better for the crowd. So it’s aesthetics, but it’s safety first. So it’s safety, aesthetics, and oh, by the way, medicine, too.”

With that understanding of his profession, few things in life could occur that would be a total, life-altering disaster for someone like Schwartz. Yet on June 2, 2016, in Smyrna, Tennessee, one total, life-altering disaster happened.

Kuss had just taken off in a practice run with the rest of his Blue Angels squad when something went very, very wrong. After climbing into the air, he attempted what was called a “Split S” maneuver. Instead, his plane accelerated toward the earth and crashed. Witnesses described seeing a fireball before thick, black smoke began rising from the crash site.

“Immediately, I’m saying, ‘Does anybody see a chute?’ And of course the jets are going over right away, they’re looking for everything they can find for signs of life, of course,” Schwartz said. “Probably the worst part of a flight surgeon’s job is after a mishap. Fifteen minutes later, I’m in the field identifying his body and looking through the torn up trees.”

“It hit me hard because he’s a friend, first of all,” said Schwartz. “It’s kind of my job; in my job description, it’s keep these guys away from the ground. Looking back on it there was nothing I could have done in that time span. But still, it’s in your head, and it’s something that’s not going to go away. I’ll have to live with it.”

To most of America, Kuss was a Blue Angels pilot. But to those who knew him, he was the ultimate family guy, often more interested in going home to his wife Christina and their two young kids than anything else.

“Jeff was a family man,” Christina Kuss said. “It was always family first.”

The extended Blue Angels family has rallied around Kuss to run with her this weekend in the Marine Corps Marathon.

“My husband had propositioned me to run pretty soon before he passed,” said Kuss. “And I joked, and I said, ‘No chance!’ But he wanted to do it, and I was like, in a sarcastic tone, ‘Well, that’s a really cool goal.’”

“Then, after he passed away, it kind of came up in conversation: ‘Would you ever want to run a marathon?’ And I said, ‘You know, it’s funny, because I said no before Jeff died. But I kind of want to do it for him now.’”

She wasn’t alone.

“She’s always trying to find ways to honor him, as we all are, really,” Schwartz said. “The Blue Angel wives kind of got together and jumped on board. My wife and I had done a couple of marathons before, but I’m by no means a big marathon runner. It was Christina’s idea, the wives got involved and asked a few teammates as well. So all of us said, ‘Absolutely, we’re not going to turn that down.’ So it’s tough, it’s good. It’s Jeff pushing us in our lives now.”

This will be Christina’s first marathon.

She said the support she’s received from others in the Blue Angels family has been instrumental in her life as she picks up the pieces after Jeff’s passing. That support has also fueled her to grind through the training necessary to complete a 26.2 mile course, admitting after everything that’s been done to help her, she feels compelled not to let down everyone who has supported her through all of this, and who agreed to join her in this long run meant to honor Jeff.

“He wasn’t necessarily a saint in the world. But hopefully he is now. I think he deserves to be from what I know about him.” — Joe Schwartz

There have been moments where Christina felt Jeff with her on these training runs too.

“I have this thing with the number six,” Kuss said. “That was his number. I feel like it pops up sometimes and I feel like it’s him.”

A few weeks ago she was running when it started pouring down rain.

“I hid under an awning for just a little while and I pulled out my phone and I was on mile 6.66, and I was just like, ‘Hey! Still doing it.’ So, yeah, I do, I feel motivation from Jeff. And I’m excited to run it for him. I’m also eager to run it for myself so that I know I can do really hard things — accomplish anything, really.”

That’s almost exactly how Kuss is motivating everyone joining his wife in this race, too.

“Finding that motivation is not hard, when you think about Jeff,” said Schwartz. “He was a quiet motivator. He wasn’t going to be out there barking at you, he wasn’t a loud Marine Corps DI (drill instructor) calling out cadences. He was the calm, conversational running guy that was probably going to make you run just a little harder than you wanted to.”

“He was not an in-your-face motivator,” agrees Christina Kuss. “He led by example, and by being awesome himself.”

“I’m not doing this thing in three hours or anything,” Schwartz said. “I’m sure Jeff would, because he had the highest V/O2 max (maximum volume of oxygen) of us all when we were tested at the Naval Academy.”

Today, Christina Kuss is raising their two kids — Calvin who is five, and Sloane, who is two — at their home in Durango, Colorado, while trying to gear up for this race she feels compelled to finish in honor of her husband. None of it is easy, and that would be the case even if there was no race to run.

“When I have wondered if I was going to do this,” Kuss said, with a quiver in her voice and tears welling up into her eyes, before firming up.

“I committed to it and people have supported me with funding and things. But it was hard. It’s been hard. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it. And I wasn’t sure if it was important enough, because I want to start focusing on the kids and getting settled into life here. But I thought about Jeff, and how he never quit. And he worked so hard at everything that he did. And this started out for him. So, I knew I could do it. And I’ve drawn a lot of strength from my husband’s character. And I’m excited to find out I can do it. And I know he’ll be running it with me.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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