Two time Olympic Ski Jumper Eugene Robert “Gene” Kotlarek passed away November 9th in his hometown of Colorado Springs, CO. Kotlarek, who was a ski jumping legend in the 1960s, was 77 years old.
Gene Kotlarek grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, where he began skiing at the age of five under the tutelage of his father George. By the age of 17, he had won the Minnesota State High School title, as well as the Boys title at the National Junior Championship. Kotlarek was named to his first Olympic team in 1960, representing the US on home soil at Squaw Valley. It was the first of two Olympic teams Kotlarek would be a part of, as he was named again in 1964. Major highlights of his skiing career include three National Titles in 1963, 1966, and 1967, as well as setting the American distance record, flying 454 feet in Oberstdorf, Germany in 1964. The record stood for nearly a decade.
Kotlarek was the inspiration for a generation of skiers including fellow Duluth Olympians Jim and Jeff Denney.
“Growing up in Chester Bowl, Gene was the Mickey Mantle of our generation,” Jeff Denney told Rick Weegman of the Duluth News Tribune. “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.”
“Gene and John “The Bullet” Balfanz were not only great competitors during their major competition days, but were good friends” according to Jim Balfanz. “Gene told me back at Jim’s funeral in 1991 that the new Northland skis that Jim had sold him allowed him to set that hill record and win the USSA Championships in Steamboat Springs. Gene was a terrific person and will be greatly missed.”
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Following an early retirement from skiing due to injury, Kotlarek spent time as a National Team coach from 1968-1970. Over 40 years later, Kotlarek still considered his time coaching as his “toughest job yet.” Kotlarek received his B.A. in business from the University of Minnesota in 1963 and moved into the accounting world after retiring from coaching. Although he moved on from the ski team, Gene couldn’t stay away from sport and would eventually take over as the President of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Association.
“He was a prominent advocate for athletes rights, the integrity of athletes accomplishments and was a vocal proponent of the Olympic ideals” said Diane Simpson, who served on the USOPA board with Gene for over a decade.
His great friend and fellow Olympian, Dick Fosbury remembered, “Gene was a self starter and he reached out to me about activating the midwest (USOPA) chapter with a bold plan to separate it into multiple chapters to garner increased engagement. He was such an enthusiastic guy and a visionary and that move really did help get a lot more Olympians working together because it got more people involved at the local level. He is really going to be missed.”
Michelle Dusserre-Farrell, his successor as president of the CO USOPA, had nothing but kind words for her predecessor:
“Gene was instrumental in a variety of leadership roles in the Olympic sports movement. As a long time President of the Colorado Chapter of Olympians and Paralympian’s he was instrumental in efforts to integrate Olympians into mainstream sport and media from the annual (CO Rockies) game to his famous “Ski with an Olympian,” event that drew Olympians from across summer and winter sports to celebrate the Olympic movement.”
“He loved being an Olympian and traveling to Ishpeming in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan every year to meet up with his fellow ski jumping alumni at the Ski Hall of Fame,” added current USOPA Board President Cindy Stinger. “For our chapter he really made our Christmas gatherings special it was always a wonderful way to bring in the New Year. You will be missed by so many who loved you.”
Gene is survived by his loving wife Barbara. As a huge piece of the ski jumping community and the larger Olympic family, Gene will be greatly missed by all of his teammates, friends and family.
Click Here to read Gene’s submission to the US Nordic Story Project from 2012.
A Celebration of Life will be held in Gene’s honor sometime following the holiday season.
*All dates, results, and pictures courtesy of American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame, USA Nordic Story Project, and Wikipedia