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DECC Athletic Hall of Fame: Denney soared from Duluth to the world stage

Jim Denney1 / 2
Ski jumper Jim Denney of Duluth competes during the 1980 Winter olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. Denney will enter the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame later this month. (1980 file / News Tribune)2 / 2

Ski jumping was one part of Jim Denney's remarkably busy year in 1980. He and wife, Sue, married in March. That fall, he completed an undergraduate accounting degree at Minnesota Duluth, passed the certified public accountant exam and bought a house.

And for two weeks in February, Denney was in Lake Placid, N.Y., to compete in a second Winter Olympics. He was at the peak of his career at age 22, representing what was then the center of American ski jumping -- Duluth. An extensive Sports Illustrated story on Feb. 4, 1980, profiled him as America's hope.

Denney finished eighth on the 90-meter hill in the 1980 Winter Games, an all-time U.S. best.

"There was a lot of pressure on Jim, but he stayed focused through it all," said Jon Denney, one of three brothers to compete on U.S. ski jumping teams. "The day of the 90-meter jump it was windy and it was just the luck of the draw when you were on the hill.

"Eighth place still said a lot for Jim's ability. Technically he was one of the best in the world, and overall, for his career, no American has won more internationally than he has. Jim went to the medal ceremony at Lake Placid, by himself, and he was saying "I gave it everything I could and I saw it to the end.' ''

Jim Denney, 53, will be one of four inductees into the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame on Sept. 15 at the Harbor Side Convention Center, joining baseball pitcher Jerry Ujdur, cross country and track coach Roy Griak and the late Larry Ross, who coached high school hockey at International Falls.

Growing up on East 13th Street near the Chester Park ski hills, the Denney brothers took to the sport with Jim as the pace setter at age 7. He made the 1976 Olympic team, as the youngest member at 19, and was the top American finisher with a 21st place in Innsbruck, Austria. His most successful years were in 1977 and 1979.

Denney became the first American to win a European meet since 1963 in January of 1977, setting a hill record of 104 meters in Villingen, West Germany. He followed that with a victory that year in the Norwegian Ski Festival. His most notable win was in the 1979 Lahti (Finland) Ski Games to best a field of 80.

"Ski jumping was more character-building than anything else. It teaches you to dig deep and not give up hope," said Jim Denney, a partner in the Duluth office of McGladrey & Pullen.

"The sport suited me well because I was content to be by myself and be introspective," Denney said. "I could focus on one thing and block everything else out.

"You spend time visualizing the ideal jump, which is a powerful aid. The attraction to the sport was that thrill of flying, that sensation you get on a perfect jump. It's something you do for the pure joy of it."

Denney, the oldest of the jumping brothers, wasn't afraid to try new training to gain a competitive edge. After the 1976 Winter Olympics, the brothers worked for two years with ballet instructor Shirley Finberg-Sullivan, a librarian at the News Tribune. Her technology involved body conditioning which promoted coordination and rhythm, often with the use of music.

"Ballet conditions all muscles. 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," Finberg-Sullivan told Sports Illustrated in 1980.

It benefitted the Denneys. In 1977, at the U.S. Championships in Laconia, N.H., Jim Denney won the men's title, Jeff Denney was first in the junior men's division and Jon Denney was first in the boys division.

Jeff Denney went on to compete in the 1978 World Championships and Jon Denney was in the 1984 Winter Olympics. Jeff Hastings finished fourth on the 90-meter hill in 1984 in Sarajevo, as the only American to ever better Jim Denney's eighth-place finish.

"Jim was a natural athlete who always had a vision of where he wanted to go," said Jeff Denney, 52, of Bloomington, Minn., an accountant with UnitedHealthcare. "We had Duluth (ski jumping heroes) like Glenn Kotlarek, David Hicks, Greg Swor and Dave Lundmark, and we looked up to Jim. We tried to copy him."

Jim Denney was part of the U.S. Ski Team through 1982 and took his final competitive jumps in 1995.

The three jumping brothers had 11 children, who all gave ski jumping a try. Jimmy Denney, Jim's son, competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. The last of the group, Andre Denney, 15, Jon's son, is a sophomore at Grand Rapids High School.

"Jim had the ability to compete at his best when it was most important," said Jon Denney, 50, an electrical engineer and in sales for Woodline Manufacturing. "I never met anyone more focused in anything than he was as a ski jumper. He inspired the whole U.S. Ski Team."