"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.