When Duluth ruled the ski jump

Quick! Name a ski jumper!

Odds are, you can’t. Ski jumping isn’t a big deal for the masses anymore.

It wasn’t always thus. Gene Kotlarek, who died last week, was a household name, the Duluth News Tribune says.

“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,” Jeff Denney, of Bloomington, who jumped in the ’78 World Championships, tells the paper.

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.”

“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.”

Arms back. Butt up.

It must’ve taken guts to point your skiis straight down a hill and off the end of a jump. Suicidal madness? Not in Duluth, which at one time was a capital of ski jumping in the United States, the Washington Post noted in 1980.

Remember Gene Kotlarek, brother of Glenn Kotlarek, the U.S. jumpers’ coach? Thought not. Gene was the national champion three times. Their father, at various times, was national jumping champion for every existing class and age group. There may be only one city in America where this causes a civic fuss even remotely reminiscent of Helsinki, or Oslo. It is the unofficial ski-jumping capital of the nation, population 95,000, a graceful old northern Minnesota city called Duluth.

Denney comes from Duluth, as do Kotlarek, and four other jumpers — including Denney’s two brothers — on the exceptionally ardent and capable young American team. The assistant coach, Pentti Ranta, lives in Duluth. This is not a conspiracy, although you will catch jumpers from Wisconsin muttering good-naturedly about “all those goofballs from Duluth.” Duluth has a winter that lumbers in somewhere around late October, a penchant for outdoor sports and a Scandinavian populace so large that one of the prettiest parks in town is named after Leif Ericson, who considerably predated that Italian upstart, Christopher Columbus.

Kotlarek’s career ended when he broke his ankle when landing. He was 27.