Gene Kotlarek's death last week caused many former Northland ski jumpers to take pause once they heard the news and remember one of Duluth's first international jumping stars.
"Growing up in Chester Bowl, Gene was the Mickey Mantle of our generation," Duluthian Jeff Denney, who went on to ski in the 1978 World Championships, said Thursday by phone from Bloomington, Minn. "You knew his name, you knew his picture. Even as little kids, you knew Gene Kotlarek. We were all inspired to be Gene Kotlarek one day."
Kotlarek died Thursday at age 77 in his hometown of Colorado Springs, Colo.
During his prime, Kotlarek competed at the 1960 and 1964 Winter Olympics, placing 14th on the normal hill in 1964. The three-year Minnesota Duluth varsity skiing letterwinner won three U.S. national Class A titles (1963, 1966 and 1967), and, at the ski flying hill in Obersdorf, Germany, set the American distance record of 454 feet, a mark that stood nine years.
"He was our hero," said Duluthian Ken Harkins, who was teammates with Kotlarek on the national team in 1966-67 and skied on the team when Harkins coached the squad in 1969-70. "When I was 10, he was at the Squaw Valley Olympics, and that was a big deal. That was one of the things that pushed Greg Swor and I. We wanted to be like him."
Harkins, Swor and Adrian Watt were members of the Duluth brigade that populated the team Kotlarek coached.
"He was the first good guy from Duluth that traveled (and competed) internationally," said Watt, who competed in the 1968 Olympics. "That was our goal to get good enough to travel the world."
Kotlarek was trained by his father, George, a member of the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame. He immediately showed potential, winning the 1958 national boys title (despite breaking his collarbone a week beforehand) and the 1959 National Junior A championship. He skied in three world championships and was elected to the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1982.
Several former contemporaries recall Kotlarek's memorable form, both going down the jump and in the air.
"He had an interesting takeoff," said Jay Martin of Crystal, Minn., who skied in the 1964 Games with Kotlarek. "He always seemed to be, from what I recall, he had a very low in-run (down the jump) and then he'd bring his arms back and his butt up and he'd swing his arms up and take off."
Watt and others remember Kotlarek's perfection and his distinctive style.
"Gene was a smooth, stylish skier with a very effortlessly looking style," Watt said. "He was prettier than most (in the air)."
Denney added: "He was always so precise."
Harkins, who retired 18 months ago from teaching at Minnesota Duluth, can still visualize Kotlarek in flight.
"He was probably one of the more stylish skiers, his body position in the air," Harkins said. "He had this mini-arm swing that he used. I'm not sure how he pulled that off but it worked for him. Everything about Gene was perfect."
What wasn't perfect was the ending to Kotlarek's ski career. While training on the 90-meter hill in Westby, Wis., Kotlarek broke his ankle on a faulty landing.
Harkins was at the top of the jump at the time and Watt was at the bottom of the hill.
"It was pretty gruesome to see," Watt recalled by phone Thursday. "When you see a guy's ankle going backwards, you know right away that something's wrong."
No information was available on a memorial service for Kotlarek.