Humble Hartung Values Life More Than the Gold Medals
Randy York’s N-Sider
First in a series of 22 Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame Profiles
With 11th-ranked Nebraska heading to Penn State for Friday’s Big Ten Men’s Gymnastics Championships and Saturday’s conference individual event finals, it’s timely to profile Jim Hartung, who was named the 10th greatest athlete in Nebraska history in 2005. In a historic series featuring the Omaha World-Herald’s Top 100 Nebraska greatest athletes of all time, Hartung ranked ahead of such Husker legends as Ed Weir, Tom Novak, Mick Tingelhoff and Dave Rimington. The first Husker men’s gymnast named to the inaugural Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame class last week, Hartung remains etched in the NCAA record book with seven individual national championships. A 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist, Hartung has earned 22 All-America honors – the most of any male student-athlete in Nebraska history. He shares an NCAA record of seven individual national career titles with Illinois’ Joe Giallombardo (1938-39-40) and Michigan’s Sam Mikulak (2011-12-13-14).
Hartung: It’s Impossible to Rate the Most Memorable Moments
A longtime Nebraska assistant coach under Francis Allen and now Chuck Chmelka, his prep and collegiate teammate, Hartung helped lead Nebraska to four consecutive national team gymnastics championships in 1979-80-81-82. Among the 22 members in Nebraska Athletics' inaugural Hall of Fame class, Hartung is the only one to be a part of four national title teams. Illinois is the only other NCAA institution which has won four consecutive men’s gymnastics national team titles, going back to 1939-40-41-42. “There’s a lot of history and a lot of respect for that four-straight national championship record,” said a humble Hartung, who has experienced so many memorable moments, he cannot distinguish one feat over another.
“As you grow up, you set a goal,” Hartung said. “When you achieve that goal, you put it into that memorable category.” In addition to winning two National Junior Olympics Championships, Hartung won two national high school all-around meets before going on to win the NCAA all-around title and an Olympic Gold Medal in 1984. “I don’t think there was one moment that was better than all the rest,” he said.
Team Accomplishments Mean More than Individual Honors
The four national team championships, however, mean the most to Hartung. “That’s bigger than the individual honors," he said. "No single recruiting class can ever break that record, but I suppose somebody is going to tie that record again someday like we did 40 years after Illinois set the record. Thirty years later, Michigan tied both of us. To be a part of that kind of long-lasting record and to accomplish it with guys like Chuck Chmelka, Phil Cahoy, Scott Johnson…guys I grew up with that had the same aspirations that I did…it was great that we all got to be part of it.”
Team spirit influenced Hartung’s turbo-charged desire to compete individually in gymnastics. “I had that support and camaraderie from the guys on my team,” he said. “When I prepare guys under my tutelage for their best moments, we focus on team success and the implications of that. It’s fun to coach guys going through a time where they’re making the final transitions in their life. Basically, they’re going from being a big kid to a man, and they’re all doing that together.”
Nebraska Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst (above with Hartung) made a surprise visit to the Bob Devaney Sports Center last week to share the news of Hartung's Hall of Fame selection. "Here's a guy who represents this place not only locally and nationally, but internationally with great distinction and honor," Eichorst said of Hartung. "I look forward to honoring Jim and this class in September and honoring many, many more classes in the years to come."
At the Tender Age of 15, Hartung Defeated USA’s Top 18-Year-Olds
Hartung’s climb to greatness began at 15 when he won the National Junior Olympic all-around title for the 15-to-18-year-old age group in Ithica, N.Y. “I started to think I could compete with the best,” he said, and from that day forward, he was constantly in search of excellence. Hartung made USA’s 1980 Olympic Team, but a boycott to compete in Moscow delayed that dream.
Four years later in Los Angeles, Hartung (third from left above) and Husker teammate Scott Johnson (second from right) teamed with Oklahoma’s Bart Conner and UCLA’s Tim Daggett, Mitch Gaylord and Peter Vidmar to win the Olympic Gold Medal, becoming the first – and still the only – American men’s gymnastics team to achieve that remarkable feat. Whatever Hartung accomplishes, he connects to Allen and to Phil Cahoy Sr., his club coach and Phil Cahoy Jr.
Phil Cahoy Jr., his prep, college and Olympic teammate from the same South Omaha roots. To this day, Hartung can still remember the scores that he and Phil Jr. achieved in their high school development period that catapulted both to the national collegiate stage and then on to the international stage. Phil Cahoy Jr. made the top 50 in The Nebraska 100, ranking ahead of such football legends as Zach Wiegert, Scott Frost, and Tom Osborne, and basketball standout Dave Hoppen.
Throat Cancer Became Hartung’s Toughest Test, Biggest Trial
Like other great contributors, Hartung is more focused on team success than individual achievement. “We continue to strive and define why we work so hard every day in the gym,” Hartung said. “Every guy on this team is proud to be here and has learned how to persevere through tough times.” Hartung faced adversity himself after learning he had throat cancer more than four years ago. “I was judging the World Gymnastics Championships in Belgium in 2010,” he told me. “I wore a tie all day, and when I took it off, I rubbed my neck and found a bump. I remember thinking ‘I don’t have a sore throat. I don’t have a cold.’ I just had an ominous feeling from that moment to the rest of the trip. When I got back to Lincoln, I saw a doctor the next morning. I was diagnosed with a type of throat cancer that was right behind my voice box.”
Olympic Gold Medalist Remembers Being 'One Scared Human Being'
Informed that he might lose his ability to speak, Hartung chose aggressive treatment with therapy. “I've been cancer free for almost four years,” he said. “According to my doctor, if there’s a reoccurrence, it normally happens in year two or year three. I'm clear at this point. If I make it to five years, my doctor said I’m statistically cured. My five years comes up in November. I’m very hopeful that it will be a happy Thanksgiving.”
For Jim Hartung, father of four, there have been “rough patches” along the way in his journey back to normalcy. Fortunately, his penchant for training enables the mental imagery and preparation required to improve. “I did my best to research the radiation and chemotherapy part of it,” he said. “I don’t want to make this sound like something that it was not. For the most part, I cruised through those parts. It was nothing like I had built up in my mind. I thought I would get better and feel well, but I continued to go downhill for almost three months in 2011. I started the ordeal at 185 pounds and by June, I was down to 119 pounds and struggling. I don’t know how to describe it. It was certainly nothing I did. I was just one scared human being.”
Family, Friends, Co-Workers Enabled Hartung's Recovery
There were times when Hartung wondered if he was going to see the next morning. “My support system is what got me through,” he said. “I’ve always had a huge appreciation for my family and friends. The experience certainly put a lot of things into a new perspective. I had to go the doctor’s office every day. My wife, Lisa, would take me on Monday. Chuck (Chmelka), my boss, would take me on Tuesday. Johnny (Robinson), our other assistant, would take me on Wednesday. Dan Kendig, our women’s gymnastics coach, would take me on Thursday. Jim Devine, a doctor friend of mine, would take me on Friday. It was the same schedule for 10 weeks. I am indebted forever to all of them. My folks are elderly, but still came to see me. Dr. (Lonnie) Albers, our team physician, coordinated the cancer doctors and kind of held my hand through everything. My family and friends and the incredible professional help are the reason I'm standing here today in pretty good spirit. I am so thankful for everyone.”
Faith, family and friends indeed helped Hartung endure a steady stream of sleepless nights. “I didn’t even have enough energy to type out things on the computer,” Hartung said. “You’re kind of all alone with your thoughts. Night after night, you just wonder if you’re going to see the morning, and that motivates you every time. That’s where the faith, the thoughts of my family, and the thoughts of my friends come in. They were a big part of my recovery. Realizing what I had behind me became as important as anything a person can hope to have.”
Hartung: In College Athletics, It's All about Relationships
Hartung points out the student-athletes he coaches have the same goals he and his teammates had. “They want to earn a degree, enjoy success and build for their future,” he said. “In college athletics, it's all about relationships. When you go on to a professional career, it’s still about being part of a team. College athletics is different than the pros. We all have individual goals, but you will never be part of a closer-knit team than you will in college. It’s the best thing I can say about college sports. It teaches you to count on other people and teaches other people to count on you. Your growth comes from the pursuits you share, put together and achieve.”
Jim Hartung does not measure success in dollar signs. Athletes in some sports may not make major money in their chosen sport, but that does not tarnish a shared lifelong commitment. “Money can’t buy what we experience in terms of relationships,” Hartung said. “We’ve had guys who worked hard to achieve their gymnastics dreams, and end up missing nationals because of injury. They’ve done everything possible to be successful in their sport and it may not work out successfully, but if they’re doing what’s right, they’ll still end up in medical school or some other important endeavor they’ve poured their heart into.”
Life Lessons Triumph over the Trials and Tribulations
College athletics is about passion and positive performance, traits that can transfer to a job, relate to a family and serve a life well lived. Hartung does not measure himself in NCAA championships or Olympic Gold. He embraces the life lessons he’s learned through trial, knowing that triumph can trump tribulation. It all happens through coaches and teammates who share a vision, work diligently and reinforce each other. That dream is rooted in the past to spur the present and fuel the future of a proud program that has its priorities in place.
Chmelka (above right) relishes coaching with a boyhood friend whose collegiate and Olympic career was unparalleled. “Jim never missed a routine in the NCAA Championships,” Chmelka said. “He was an absolute machine for four straight years. What he did was unheard of then and is still unheard of now. In the 1980s, you had to compete in twice as many routines as there is now. Jim’s strength and his focus were unbelievable. He was the toughest competitor I’ve ever seen. He was great individually but a total team player. That’s why the coaches put Jim in the middle of the Olympic lineup. He set the bar high for the closers. We feel very fortunate to have a legend like Jim coaching in our program. He definitely deserves to be the first male gymnast in our new Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame. He’s a trailblazer...in every sense of the word.”
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