By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Let me tell you a few things about the year 1979.
The average income in the United States was $17,500 a year. The average rent paid by an American with $280 a month. Gas cost 89 cents a gallon.
And Ed Denny set the West Virginia University Natatorium record in the 1,000-yard freestyle at 9 minutes, 22.01 seconds.
Now let me tell you a few things about 1980.
Ronald Reagan became president of the United States of America. America led a boycott of the Moscow Olympics. Mount St. Helen’s erupted in Washington, killing 57 people. Iran and Iraq began an 8-year war. John Lennon was assassinated. America learned who shot J.R. Ewing on the “Dallas” television show.
And Ed Denny set the WVU Natatorium record in the 1,650-yard freestyle in 15:34.07.
Why do we bring this up?
Because gas is $3.75 a gallon, because “Dallas” is in its second coming and because the American president is Barack Obama.
Oh, yes, and because 33 and 34 years later Ed Denny still holds those records at the WVU Natatorium, and only just this year had his Atlantic 10 1,650-yard freestyle record broken.
Isn’t it time WVU recognized Ed Denny and put him in its Athletic Hall of Fame, which to this time has honored only two swimmers – 1950s men’s swimmer Dan Cavanaugh and 1980s women’s swimmer Kim Kaufman.
Records, they say, are made to broken, but Denny’s have survived more than three decades while he has gone on to become a distinguished swimming coach, having put in a decade running the program at Fairmont State and then being the founding coach of a now 11-year-old program at California, Pa.
With a lull in spring football and spring break going on, it seemed to be the perfect time to catch up with Denny, something his competitors seldom did when he was a member of the WVU swim team, having come in from Kiski (Pa.) Prep School.
“I don’t know if anyone thinks, as they are an athlete, ‘Yeah, I got it in me,’” he explained. “It was just all the time while I was at West Virginia we liked to race so much, and none of us liked to lose. Each time in competition I wanted to see how many people I could beat.
“I knew if I beat everybody, or almost everybody, that I was going pretty fast because I knew those guys were pretty fast. I don’t know it was so much I liked winning. It was that I didn’t like to lose. That was probably a bigger driving force.”
Even now he thinks back on those record-shattering performances, those once-in-a-lifetime moments where everything came together.
“The 1,000-yard freestyle I remember was set against the University of Maryland. Not only was it Coach (Kevin) Gilson’s alma mater, which was fuel enough for the fire, but they had a guy on their team that three years earlier was on the Canadian Olympic team swimming in the same event,” he said. “I was thinking if I could hang with this guy or beat him I’ll be going pretty fast.”
And the 1,650-meter record?
“That was at the Eastern Seaboard Championships. My mom was there, my brother Jim, my younger brother John. It was such a festive occasion, being a college championship meet, you just get caught up in all the excitement and you let the adrenalin and pageantry carry you right along.”
The opportunity he had in those moments and the direction Gilson gave him pushed him to the heights that he reached.
“As an athlete, WVU and Coach Gilson gave me the opportunity to be successful at the highest level of competition I desired. It was, ‘Here it is, if you want to be successful at this level, here’s what you have to do, and we can get you there. If you want to be successful at the next level, here’s what you have to do, and we can get you there.’ I carried that over into my own coaching career,” he said.
“As a person, it was the same idea. I think I’m prepared to be as successful in my chosen profession as I want to be. Being at WVU gave me the ability, the confidence, the resources in my five years there to succeed,” he said.
When he left WVU he did so with a degree in secondary education and a minor in history, but also with a year under his belt as a graduate assistant in the swimming program.
His roommate and teammate, himself still a record holder at WVU, John Havlik, was from the Annapolis, Md., area, was an assistant coach at Navy and was leaving and recommended him for the job. He took it, stayed five years, went back and coached his old high school program for a season, then moved on to West Point.
After five years there the Fairmont State job came open and he landed it, leading it to great heights, including producing a national champion in Jason Gallaher, currently the head swimming coach at Sweet Briar College and recently inducted into the Fairmont State Hall of Fame.
“I had a wonderful time at Fairmont and had great success,” Denny said, but he backs off from taking too much credit.
“I learned a long time ago great athletes make great coaches,” he said.
He left only because at California he had a chance to build a program from scratch, an opportunity that was “too interesting to pass up.”
It’s been a great run and it’s time his alma mater just recognized how great.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.