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"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.
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."