"It is not a jumping sport. It is a flying sport; a lifting sport. You simply take off into the air at the same speed you come down the inrun. I used to ask my boys what they thought about going down the runway. One of them said, 'Shirley, you've got to be kidding. I think about how I'm going to land.' I said, 'No you don't. You think about being a bird.' "
"I can fly."
A little less than two months from now, 22-year-old Jim Denney will marry his high school sweetheart, begin his final two quarters of college and prepare himself for a career as a certified public accountant. Until then, he has wings.
Denney is the best ski jumper in the U.S. Further, he is acknowledged to be the best this country has produced in the last 20 years—and perhaps the best ever, if he fulfills expectations and comes away from the Olympics with a medal. No American ski jumper has done that before.
February 4, 1980
There was a Californian named Anders Haugen who won the bronze in the combined ski jumping and cross-country competition in 1924, but it took a half century for that feat to be recognized—even by Haugen himself. In 1974 a Norwegian historian went back and recalculated the results of the 1924 Games, and Haugen was flown to Norway to collect his medal. Despite the 50-year lag time, he still was America's first Nordic medal winner in the Winter Games. Such is the tradition.
Denney is first among a small but promising group of young U.S. jumpers—two of his brothers, Jeff and Jon, are in the group, too—who are aiming to break that lackluster tradition, but for all their enthusiasm, most of the team is still four years away. "We never said we'd be ready by 1980," says Olympic Jumping Coach Glenn Kotlarek. "We said we had a Jim Denney that might be ready. But by 1984 we could be a world power."
The U.S. a world power in ski jumping? Quite a goal for a nation whose collective image of the sport is that of the poor fellow, limp as a rag doll, careening off a 90-meter tower and over a barrier of hay bales to heaven knows what end—the videotaped definition of "the agony of defeat."
Denney has been reminded of that sequence so often that any trace of sympathy he once held for that immortalized jumper has long since vanished. "It was a Yugoslav," he says. "He was sitting too far back, and his skis popped off the track. He should never have been allowed on the jump. That one shot on Wide World of Sports has given ski jumping a bad image. You can go through 10 meets sometimes and never see a fall."
If Denney jumps in the Olympics as he is capable of jumping, he'll go a long way toward changing that image. He does not think of ski jumping as a sport of daredevils, and the last thing he considers himself to be is a sort of Evel Knievel on skis. Denney is clean-cut, conservative, deeply religious. He doesn't drink so much as beer; doesn't smoke tobacco—or anything else; and doesn't drive as fast as he skis. Yet his purpose every time he climbs up the tower is to "land on flat ground," which in the lexicon of ski jumping means to jump beyond the slope of the hill to the outrun, where, upon touching down, one might very probably break both legs in seven places. He finds nothing incongruous about these Clark Kent/Superman aspects of his life.
"In downhill racing, the best runs are always the ones that are on the borderline between being in and out of control," Denney says. "But in ski jumping, your best jumps are the ones that you're in total control of."
To a spectator, it is almost beyond belief that ski jumpers are ever in total control of what they do. At the start of a run down the 90-meter jump (the 90-meters refers to the distance between the takeoff and a point 90 meters downhill, near where the slope begins to flatten out), a skier tucks himself into a crouch, arms positioned behind him, so that his center of gravity is low and rearward. As he approaches the takeoff point, he's traveling about 60 mph, and if he executes his takeoff properly, there will be no loss of speed when he becomes airborne. The lift-off motion is less of a jump than a smooth and sudden transfer of his center of gravity to someplace up and out, and—whoosh—he is flying, man as rocket, a perfectly immobile body making a terrific rushing noise through the air, body angled forward over the skis, mouth open, eyes wide, for 100 meters or more. The really good jumpers, the Jim Denneys, touch down reluctantly, sliding one ski forward and dipping a knee back in the classic telemark landing, arms away from the sides, finally, for balance. The others come down and embrace the snow with their skis. There is no simple way to explain the scoring of the sport—there are style points and some things called a P point, a table point and a K point—but, essentially, the longest jumper wins, if he doesn't fall. "You always work to get to the bottom of the hill," says Denney. "That's your goal every time you take off. In big competitions, if you get the longest ride, you're going to get the most style points."
The entire ride in the air lasts less than four seconds, and for every millisecond of that time, the jumper's movement must be carefully controlled, almost mathematical. The aerodynamics of ski jumping are such that the angle of the skis should point 20 degrees above the line of the flight, and the angle of the body should be 20 degrees above the skis. This ratio gives an effect that one jumper compares to sticking your hand out a car window and angling it so that the tips of the fingers are cutting through the air instead of being caught by the rush. Ski jumping is not speed and spring against gravity; the jumpers are kitelike, riding on air. They are seldom higher than 10 feet above the ground during the flight, and in optimum conditions a gentle wind is blowing in their faces to help keep them aloft.
"You don't sense weightlessness," says Denney. "A double Ferris wheel—that's weightlessness. This is more like an airplane. You feel lift. You're always riding on air, working the air. You put your arms against your sides with the palms forward because you're trying to increase your surface area. That's the fun part, the flying."
Denney has flown where no American ever has: namely, to two European championships. In 1977, a year after he established himself as the top U.S. jumper at the Innsbruck Olympics, Denney became the first American to win an all-around title outside his country, by finishing first in the Norwegian Ski Week festival. Then, over the course of three weeks last winter, he finished third in the 90-meter competition at Lake Placid's pre-Olympics and won the 70-meter championship at the Salpausselka Games in Lahti, Finland—routing the competition, which included Finnish jumper Pentti Kokkonen, the top man in the world in 1979, by 25 points. "He not only beat those guys on their own turf," says teammate Jeff Davis of Steamboat Springs, Colo., "he beat them bad. In years before, the guys on the team had the attitude that those Europeans were unbeatable. Jimmy never felt that way. And guess what—they're not."
Like Denney, Olympic Coach Kotlarek is from Duluth, which is now the unquestioned capital of ski jumping in the U.S. This is true despite the fact that you can throw a baseball from the bottom to the top of the largest hill within 50 miles of Duluth. But the locals, largely of Scandinavian descent, are resourceful souls, and Kotlarek can recall building ski jumps as a kid by piling up Christmas trees and covering them with snow. As a result, he and his friends never did much jumping until after New Year's.
"Jimmy was right on the numbers in Lahti," Kotlarek says. "Somebody would have had to jump off the wall to beat him that day. When he's on, he's like that. A machine. Believe me, in this sport, all the Europeans take him only too seriously."
After years of domination by Norway and Finland, ski jumping is in a state of flux; Denney has no clear favorite to beat, nor is there a country that's currently preeminent in the sport—although East Germany is strong. In Olympic 70-meter and 90-meter competitions since 1964, the eight gold medals have been won by eight different countries: Norway, Russia, Poland, Austria, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Japan and East Germany. Given a certain familiarity with the hill and the advantage of being surrounded by friends and American food, Denney has as good a shot at the gold as any of a dozen jumpers—though the pressure of being the host-country favorite could work against him. There is something about an uptight body that the air will not tolerate or carry. "If none of us did anything in Placid," says Davis, "it would really be a big setback, not just for Jimmy but for the whole jumping program. But Jimmy doesn't feel pressure. He just doesn't let it bother him. A lot of us go up the hill and try to beat somebody and end up beating ourselves. He just tries to ski his best every time. That's where he's way ahead of us—in the mental department. Athletically, he's not super gifted, but I think his understanding of ski jumping is gifted. He's made himself good by training hard and working at understanding the sport."
"It's funny," says Kotlarek. "Today Jimmy's the ambassador of the sport in this country. But four years ago he was the quiet kid who sat in the corner and was ridiculed for having a weird training regimen."
That regimen is the creation of Shirley Finberg-Sullivan, a 4'10¾" dynamo. It has another name: ballet.
Finberg-Sullivan is a ballet instructor who minors in training athletes like ski jumpers and scullers, and if you care to argue, she can quote you chapter and verse as to why ballet dancers are the finest-conditioned athletes in the world. If you're still not convinced, ask Denney. "That's tough stuff, don't let anybody fool you," he says. "Ballet dancers work harder than any athletes."
Shirley's son was a ski jumper, and she used to go over to Chester Park in Duluth, which is where Jim, Jeff and Jon Denney got their starts at the age of four. Chester Park has four permanent jumps built on the side of a bowl—Bunny Ears and Rabbit Ears and Big and Little Chester—and landing on "flat ground" off rickety old Big Chester, which is a 45-meter jump, means setting down on the frozen pond at the foot of the bowl. Every winter day after school, the Denneys jumped there. And every weekend. And three nights a week under the lights.
"When I was a little kid there were probably 75-100 jumpers in our group at Chester Park alone," recalls Jeff, who, at 21, is a year younger than Jim and two years older than Jon. "But then Alpine skiing and hockey drew some kids away, so that by the time we were 10 or 11 it got pretty lean."
Jim had his first jumping skis by the age of seven, was flying off Big Chester at nine and entered his first national competition at 10, which is when Kotlarek got a glimpse of him. "Even when Jim was 10, 11, 12 years old," says Kotlarek, "he went off the jump with something special; he didn't go off like other kids."
For one thing, he had no fear. Denney believes there is no such thing as a natural-born jumper, but after a certain age, when defense mechanisms have had a chance to be rooted, one is unable to pick up the sport with any degree of success. Denney has jumped so long that he cannot remember his first jump any more than he can remember his first step. "There are no natural jumpers, because what they do is so unnatural," says Finberg-Sullivan. "It's a sport you can't make somebody do. I consider it an art form. You need rhythm, flexibility, agility, intelligence and creativity, because every jumper has to create his own style."
Spoken like a true artiste. A friend of the Denney family, Finberg-Sullivan tried for two years to get the boys to train under her, but it wasn't until Jim developed shin splints from running that he and his brothers agreed to try ballet. That was in 1975, the season Jim made the Olympic team.
"Jumpers have always just exercised their jumping muscles, so their supporting muscles are 'blehhhhk,' " Finberg-Sullivan says. "Ballet conditions all the muscles. Weight-lifting and jumping give you short, taut muscles, but they have to be long and flexible to jump. How do you think dancers jump so high and far? It's a rhythm that starts at the soles of the feet and goes all the way through the body."
Before long the Denneys were rising early and doing their bar exercises between six and nine in the morning with something approaching religious zeal. "The secret of training is to enjoy it as much as you enjoy the sport," Finberg-Sullivan says. "Training is the sport."
Because, as Finberg-Sullivan puts it, with music you are never alone, the Denneys worked out with a tape playing in the background—first rock bands, later classical music. Strauss was a favorite, as was Grieg's Norwegian Dances. And while they exercised their bodies, their dance instructor went to work on their minds.
"You can complicate ski jumping to the point of no return," Finberg-Sullivan says. "I don't believe in that. I believe you can develop a mental process in which you can tell yourself exactly where you want to land, do the whole ride in your head before you go down, and then go do it. You shouldn't be thinking, 'I've got to jump 10 extra meters to beat that guy.' You jump against yourself. You do the very best you can, and you've won. You can instill a calmness in young men and young girls. I've always tried to teach my athletes calmness of thinking."
When, as the youngest member of the 1976 Olympic team, Denney took his ballet routine on the road, he got no small amount of flak from his teammates. Because Norwegian Dances is better background for exercising than for, say, sleeping, Kotlarek tried to assign Denney to a single room as often as possible, so he could train without waking a roommate—a practice that backfired on at least one occasion, when he put Denney in a room on the floor above the rest of the team. At 6 a.m. Kotlarek was shaken awake by the bounding from on high, and he had to climb the stairs and trade rooms with his young star.
"He took a lot of ridicule from the kids on the team about the ballet," Kotlarek says, "but I attribute Jim's success to Shirley. She taught those boys self-awareness, and she taught them discipline. She wouldn't let them quit. They'd do things that looked perfect, but they wouldn't be perfect enough for Shirley."
The ridicule stopped at Innsbruck, when Denney was the top U.S. finisher in both the 70-meter and 90-meter jumps, placing 21st and 18th, respectively. "I don't think he even knew where he was," says Kotlarek. "His whole day was regimented, so that he got up and did this and this and this in order. Even back then, we were preparing for 1980, so there was no pressure."
In the fall of 1977, Kotlarek hired a Finnish jumping coach, Pentti Ranta, to work with the U.S. team, and persuaded the Denneys to abandon Shirley's workouts and train with Ranta. Using weights while continuing to stress flexibility, Denney increased his strength-to-body-weight ratio significantly, so that now, at 5'7" and 150 pounds, he can squat-thrust 2½ times his own weight and broad-jump 10'2" from a standing position. "Physically, these guys are in as good or better shape than any jumpers in the world," says Ranta, a patient, bearlike man who believes the only fall a jumper truly must fear is falling in love. "Technically, we're still working. It's all final tuning from here."
It is a relaxed process. The calmness that Finberg-Sullivan instilled in him has stuck, and the boy-faced Denney comports himself as if he has a perpetual Strauss waltz humming in his ears. "An Olympic medal isn't the biggest thing in my life, anyway," says Denney. "You've got to be a little more stable about things than to flow with the ups and downs of whether you win or not. There's so much chance involved. In the 90-meter jump at Sapporo in 1972, there was a 10th of a point between each of the first four places. Four-tenths of a point between a gold and a pat on the back. That's less than a meter or maybe even half a meter per jump."
Spoken like a true accountant. But if a medal isn't the most important thing in Denney's life, it most certainly is for the life, health and happiness of U.S. ski jumping. "When I came into this office in 1975," says John Bower, the head of the U.S. Nordic Ski program, "there were a lot of people ready to bury the sport of jumping. Had I said, 'We can't be competitive, let's drop it,' I'd have had no argument from the trustees. But I'm encouraged now because you're starting to see some excitement at the grass-roots level."
No one is fooling himself into thinking that ski jumping will ever achieve broad popularity as a recreational sport, but as the U.S. speed skaters have proved, a small base can still produce top international athletes. "The problem with our program now is that it's synthetic at the top," says Kotlarek. "In other sports the cream has time to rise to the top, but we have to select our best very early on and train them. Our guys are highly trained athletes, not natural ones. But the fire is starting to burn a little bit hotter now, and if Jimmy were to win a medal, it would really take off.
"The thing with the speed skaters is that they've made the size of their group work for them. The skaters may be small in number, but they're all top competitors. From day one, all a skater knows about is excelling, because who does he or she look to? Eric Heiden or Sheila Young, who are the best in the world. Royalty begets royalty. Ski jumping has always been a poor man's sport over here."
What it lacks, then, is a King of the Mountain. Jim Denney, from the time you first climbed up Bunny Ears, a nation and a sport have awaited your flight.