The photo of Jim Brennan is posted to a bulletin board in the den of his home in northwest Bend. Part of a collage of photos, it stands out from the rest.
Brennan’s head is wrapped in bandages that cover all but his eyes and mouth, the result of a crash on a summer ski jump in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1962.
“It was on crushed ice on a 60-meter hill,” Brennan recalls. “And, uh, my face went down the hill. It tore everything off me. ... I probably had a concussion, but they didn’t know what concussions were in those days. I was unconscious for about six hours. I think it was more psychological than anything else, but I never recovered from it.”
While that photo captures a harsh moment in Brennan’s ski jumping career in the 1950s and ’60s, another photo nearby on the wall shows why he loved the sport so much: Brennan floating through the air on skis, his back to the camera, more than 60,000 spectators on the ground below cheering him on at a contest in Norway. Brennan would have dinner with the King of Norway later during that trip.
Now 69 and a real estate agent in Bend, where he has lived since 1968, Brennan will be inducted into the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame on Dec. 6 in Red Wing, Minn. He will be one of 16 new hall of fame inductees who will be honored during the third annual induction ceremony.
Brennan will not make the trip to Minnesota — the ceremony is expected to last only little more than an hour — but he plans to take part in the event via Skype, an internet-based video conferencing system.
“It humbles me,” Brennan says of his induction. “I never even knew about (the ski jumping hall of fame). ... A year doesn’t go by that I don’t hear from somebody from back then. We used to have a ball.”
A member of the U.S. Ski Team from 1959 to 1962, Brennan in 1960 won national ski jumping titles in both the United States and Canada. He was an alternate on the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team for the Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif.
Brennan spent much of 1960 and ’61 traveling around Europe and competing in ski jumping events, and he believes he was the first American ski jumper to compete in Japan after World War II.
In 1962, during a competition trip to then-communist Eastern Europe, Brennan and some U.S. teammates decided to evade the Soviet officials assigned to follow them while in Warsaw, Poland.
“Man, did we get in trouble,” Brennan says with a sly smile. “We lost them. They couldn’t do anything because the coach was there.
“That was a shock for a kid to see the Berlin Wall.”
Drafted into the military in November 1961, Brennan was called up for 30 days of duty during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 but saw no action. He claims that his ski jumping career kept him out of boot camp and out of active duty until the ski season ended in ’62.
“I was a trained medic ... one of those crash programs,” Brennan says. “It was all top secret. I saw no action, and that was because of ski jumping. I know that, but they don’t tell you that.”
After his dramatic crash in 1962, Brennan attended Western State College in Gunnison, Colo. There he met the woman who is now his wife of 40 years, Dee Brennan.
After college, Jim spent winters running the alpine skiing program at Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club in Colorado.
Central Oregon Community College officials recruited Brennan to Bend in 1968 to start a skiing program at the school. After three years, when he discovered his contract would not be renewed, he changed careers on the advice of a prominent historical figure in Central Oregon who happened to be one of Brennan’s golf and ski buddies.
“Bill Healy (founder of Mt. Bachelor ski resort) took me aside and said, ‘Get your real estate license,’” Brennan recalls.
His coaching and jumping days were mostly over, but Brennan was not finished with skiing. In fact, he has been a regular on snowy slopes at Mt. Bachelor and across the West for the past 40 years. Just last winter, he says, he skied 70 days and snowboarded 14 other days.
Jim and Dee, who have no children, have lived a life of outdoor adventure, including numerous windsurfing trips to Maui and mountain biking trips to Utah and the Grand Canyon.
Brennan has never stopped skiing probably because he can never remember a time when he did not ski. His father was a construction contractor, so the family moved a lot. But the Brennans spent every winter of Jim’s childhood in Leavenworth, Wash., where ski jumping in the 1940s and 50s was a way of life.
“Our little town of 900 people had 200 jumpers,” Brennan claims. “My dad put me on skis when I could walk. I can’t remember not being on skis. We had a ski jump off the barn in our front yard.
“Until I was about 8 or 9 I had one pair of skis for everything (alpine, cross country, and jumping).”
Brennan says ski jumps were located all over the Northwest up until about 30 years ago, when liability and insurance claims became issues when accidents occurred. He recalls that there were even three ski jumps in Central Oregon in the 1960s and ’70s: on Pilot Butte in Bend, at what is now Skyliner Sno-park west of Bend, and at Mc-Kenzie Pass near Sisters.
“In Europe it’s still very popular, but it’s not popular here in the United States at all,” Brennan says of ski jumping. “There’s probably not 100 ski jumpers in the United States now. There were probably more than 10,000 at one time.”
Alpine skiing became more popular than ski jumping because “it’s easier and probably a lot safer,” according to Brennan.
Brennan says that in his jumping days he would reach speeds of up to 60 mph on takeoff, then fly 250 to 300 feet through the air. He tied the American distance record of 316 feet when he won the U.S. Nationals in 1960.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Brennan says. “You feel like you’re up there forever. It’s no different from when you get a really good powder run.”
Nowadays, ski jumpers go slower on takeoff, with more sophisticated technique and facilities that allow for better control and longer distance. The skis are also longer, about 280 centimeters today as opposed to 250 centimeters when Brennan competed. The current world record ski jump is 239 meters, or about 789 feet, set by Norwegian Bjoern Einar Romoreren in 2005.
Brennan figures he suffered about four concussions during his jumping career, and he jokes that his wife says it is affecting his memory today. But Brennan will never forget his days of flying through the mountain air as far as he could, most times sticking a perfect landing.
“Ski jumping was natural for us in those days,” he says. “It was part of living.”