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Spotlight on past Ely Sports Hall of Fame members: Jim Grahek

Jim Grahek

by Mike Turnbull

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing a longtime friend and ex-high school, American Legion and Blue Sox baseball teammate, Jimmy Joe Grahek. Jim Grahek was a 1976 Ely High School graduate and was named to the ESHOF in 1996 as a representative from the 1970s.

Jim was a multi-sport athlete while in high school but most people will remember him for his ski jumping exploits. Jim played baseball for George Marsnik and his ski jumping coaches were Bob Babich and Lenny Nappa.

In ninth grade Jim played golf for Doug Dreschler. That was Jim’s only year on the team and he won the individual District Championship. Despite his golf success as a freshman he returned to playing baseball his sophomore year.

“I enjoyed golf but was a lot more passionate about baseball. Coach Dreschler was not very happy with my decision.”

The baseball team won the District title his sophomore and junior year and lost to Babbitt in the District championship in his senior year. Babbitt would go on to win the Minnesota State title also.

In his senior year of ski jumping Jim won the state championship and the team won the team title. The State Championships took place on the hill in Cloquet at that time. Members of that team included Jerry Skubic, Pat Magee, Mike and Tim Williams, Jerry Skraba and Jimmy Joe.

Upon graduating from high school Jim accepted a scholarship to attend Northern Michigan University in Marquette, MI as a student-athlete and compete on the ski jumping team. Jim attended NMU for four years and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing Management.

Jim’s junior year he was the individual runner-up at the NCAA Championships. In 1980 NMU won the NCAA Ski Jumping National Championship and Jim was named First Team All-American, finishing third in the nation individually. Jim was named to the Northern Michigan University Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016.

Jim was invited to the Olympic Trials in December of 1979 to try out for the Olympic Team for the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.

“It was an honor just to be invited. The US Olympic Ski Jumping Team was not big on adding college jumpers to the team. The try outs were a real grind and there was a lot of politics involved in picking the team. I jumped well on the small hill and finished fourth. This gave me a chance to jump on the 90m hill with a chance to make the team. I managed to jump well again and took first place which earned a spot on the Olympic Ski Jumping team.”

Jim was a member of the U.S. Ski Jumping team from 1980 to 1984. Following the Olympics, Jim went on the Swiss jumping tour. He and fellow Elyite Tim Williams jumped together on several European hills also.

Looking back Jim said, “I got to jump off the Harrochof hill in Czechoslovakia. It was an amazing view from the top, you could see right across the river into Poland. One of the judges told me to be careful because if you jump too far you will land in Poland. We also got to jump at the Olympic venue from 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.”

Jim went on to coach U.S. Junior Team in 1984 and 1985. He coached the 1985 team to the Junior World Championship in Switzerland.

“When we were training in 1984 we spent some time at the Olympic Hills in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. I will never forget the hill manager there. Every morning when we came out to the hill to practice, he would not open up for us until we sat with him in his shack and shared a couple of shots of Pelinkovac. It was terrible.”

Jim moved into his eventual career in 1985 and remained in electrical supply sales before retiring in 2018.

In 1990 Jim won the National Masters Class Ski Jumping Championship. His last official ski jumping competition was in 1996 at the International Masters Championships in Steamboat, CO. Jim placed seventh. 

Jim continues to volunteer on another level for the good of ski jumping. He heads up fundraising campaigns for the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame & Museum, which is located in Red Wing, MN at the St. James Hotel. You can look up more information at www.americanskijumping.com.

He didn’t mention it but Jim is also an inductee of the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame. I pressed him on that.

“What I am most proud of is that there are four Ely guys in the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame and I am humbled to be one of them.”

Those members are Lenny Nappa, Soapy Hedloff, Tim Williams and of course Jimmy Joe Grahek.

When I asked Jim to somehow sum things up, the humble Jimmy Joe I have always known came shining through along with his gratefulness and knowledge of Ely ski jumping history.

“The Lake Placid experience was amazing and it was an honor to be a part of the 1980 team. At the end of the games we (The Olympic Team) were guests at the White House. They flew us out early in the morning from an Air Force base in Upstate New York. The bus trip from Lake Placid and the flight to Arlington, VA were, let’s say rough. I had the good fortune of spending the night before celebrating the U.S. Hockey gold medal with, hockey team members, Buzz Schneider and Mike Eruzione. (Side note: How cool is that!)

“On the bus ride from Arlington to the White House and will never forget the crowds getting bigger and bigger along the roadside. The show of American pride and appreciation was unreal. I did get to meet President Carter and his wife Rosalyn. I still have a hard time believing that but there are pictures. I will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity to travel all over the world while jumping. Will always be grateful to Coach Greg Windsperger for recruiting me to NMU and coaching the Olympic team. It was always interesting to go in and out of communist countries. Gave me full perspective of how good we have it in America.”

Jim also showed a great appreciation and reverence for Ely jumpers that came before him. He rattled off a lot of names, forgive me if I don’t hit them all. Jim mentioned, “Ward Patterson, Tom Cherne, Tom Mikolich, Ernie Korkki, Doug Williams, Gary Niskala, Matt & Mike Struna, Billy Maki, Ron Sjoberg, Louis Kalan, Mike Tomsich, Bob Hedloff, James Torfin, Tom Zgonc, Larry Happala Rick Nappa, Lenny Nappa, Soapy Hedloff, Dale Nicholson and Greg Spalj. Between these guys paving the way and the supportive Ely community providing two great hills and ski jumping in Ely was a big deal for a long time and recognized worldwide throughout the sport.”

When I asked Jim, who resides in the Minneapolis area,  how he was doing these days, he said, “Things are good, loving retirement and I have been enjoying the mild winter we have been having. I have figured out that I hate the cold. The thing I can’t figure out is how I put up with the cold all those years of jumping. I know it was bitterly cold most of those nights after school jumping out at Hidden Valley. The thing is, I loved every minute I spent jumping.”

Note: The ESHOF Committee is taking nominations for the Class of 2024 until March 1. Nominations can be emailed to Tom Coombe at the Ely Echo, tcoombe@aol.com Tom will forward them to the committee, he is not a voting member. The Class of 2024 will include members selected from the 1980s, 1990s and 200-2009. The pre-1930s – 1970s were inducted in either 1976 or 1996.

When nominating please include as much substantiated information as possible. Minimum: Name, graduate year, sports played, team and individual accolades [awards, records, statistics, etc…] and athletic experience beyond high school.

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