They call him the Polish Batman for good reason. Adam Malysz can fly.
When bats fly, they produce a sound unique to their species. So it is with Malysz, a ski jumper like no other, with a following like no other that followed his successes for the last decade.
Had he been from Germany or Finland or Norway or Austria, Malysz would be just another ski jumping star. But in Poland, a nation lacking sports heroes, Malysz is "one in 100 years," as one Polish-American said.
That makes this weekend especially monumental, especially tearful or likely both in Zakopane, the country's winter capital. Malysz announced his retirement earlier this month and will take his final ceremonial jumps Saturday in a gala featuring world-class jumpers and live music.
Malysz (pronounced MAO-ish), 33, retires as a four-time Olympic medalist (no golds) with four world championships. He's soared in a sport best known to Americans for Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards' follies at the 1988 Olympics. He's been called the Michael Jordan of Poland, but that's a stretch. Jordan transcended his continent. Malysz hasn't.
His two Facebook fan pages total fewer than 4,000 "likes," about the same as NBAer Jared Dudley (9.6 points per game), MLBer Russell Martin (five home runs in 2010) and NFL kicker Sebastian Janikowski, his countryman.
The following is exponentially higher in Poland.
"[Malysz] is a kind of institution," wrote Krzysztof Jordan, a journalist for Poland's biggest newspaper, in an email. "He's so famous, so popular like [former Pope] John Paul II and [Nobel Peace Prize winner] Lech Walesa. If he wished, he could be president."
In last year's election following the death of president Lech Kaczynski in a plane crash, Jordan said there were three vote-getters. The two politicians on the ballot and a write-in: Malysz.
Jordan offered these stats: Malysz autographs 8,000 pictures every year to spread through his insatiable fan base. Among sponsorships, he promotes the Polish national lottery, Red Bull, tea, chocolate and, in Norway, cell phones. Malysz's face, marked by his wispy mustache, is all over Oslo's streets and subways.
"People joke [in giving directions] that you have to turn after the fourth Adam," Jordan wrote.
Let an American explain it. Buffalo native Steve Mesler was part of the Olympic bobsled team that won gold in Vancouver and spent recent winters on the sport's World Cup tour in Europe.
"There's not a day that goes by when ski jumping isn't on television over there," Mesler said. "Who is by far the most recognizable person? Adam. Every night, sitting in hotels at World Cup races for months at a time, how can you not love watching a guy who has a Red Bull helmet with that mustache?
"And he was dominant."
Malysz goes out as the second-most decorated jumper in World Cup history with 92 podiums and 39 victories, trailing only embattled 1980s Finn Matti Nykänen. If not for Swiss wiz Simon Ammann, who came from nowhere to poach double Olympic gold in 2002 and again in 2010, Malysz would own three Olympic gold medals.
The silvers are as good as gold in Poland, which doesn't have much of a trophy case. Before Malysz, its best-known sportsman, boxer Andrew Golota, was famous for being infamous. Before Malysz, it went 30 years without a Winter Olympic medal.
So Poles went nuts when Malysz began his ascent in the late 1990s. Crowds at ski jumping competitions across Europe turned red and white. A bakery immortalized Malysz in a 400-pound white chocolate statue, complete with skis. A catchy tribute song, titled "
The phenomenon may be hard to grasp, unless you're Polish.
"When I see Malysz jump, my testosterone goes up," said Joe Galica, a Polish-born Chicago businessman who watched Malysz win silver and bronze medals at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and afterward shared beers with the Polish Batman. "He's Polish pride."
When Malysz announced his retirement to spend more time with his family (and to tend to his garden), he received overwhelming text messages. One man wrote that he no longer needed his TV without Adam, that he would throw it out the window, Malysz told a Polish news outlet.
Malysz is 5-foot-6 and 120 pounds. In his sport, the lighter you are, the farther you fly. He's not athletic in the American sense, and with the mustache he looks even less of a sportsman. That just adds to his appeal.
"People like me because I'm normal," Malysz said in a Polish interview translated for SI.com.
Normal? He tries to be, but he admits perks.
"I don't have to pay fines for speeding sometimes," said Malysz, who instead may leave one of those autographed photos with police. He's an avid racer rumored to fancy the Dakar Rally.
That's about the extent of his run-ins with the law. His controversies, if any, are tame, though Malysz recently made headlines for critical remarks about the memorial of last year's plane crash that killed the Polish president and 95 others.
"I am reading emails here from Poland, following Polish newspapers, and I never heard one bad thing about marriage or drugs or alcohol," Galica said.
Celebrity took its toll on Malysz and his family. It made it easier to retire now, while still at the top of his game, to refocus on his wife, Izabela, and daughter, Karolina, and get away from the spotlight. Twice before he contemplated returning to his learned trade, roofing. The attention and pressure were too much.
Photographers made Karolina scared of cameras as a young girl, Malysz said, and she would hide under a table even when her mom and dad wanted to take a picture. Malysz joined his wife to shop, only to be constantly stormed by fans.
"I knew [Izabela] was angry," he said. "How could she not, when I was there to help her, not to spend time with other people. And I have an open heart, have problems with saying no."
Malysz inspired other Polish athletes, from heavyweight boxing contender Tomasz Adamek, who could flatten Malysz yet respects him as an idol, to 2004 Olympic gold medalist swimmer Otylia Jedrzejczak. Jedrzejczak, aiming for the 2012 Olympics after two years off, said Malysz's return from a slump five years ago is motivation for her comeback.
"He did a lot for Polish sports," said Jderzejczak, billed by Polish press as the queen of summer when Malysz was the king of winter. "He did a lot for Polish people who tried to be like him, thinking they were like Adam Malysz when he was jumping."
Malysz finished third in his final competitive jumps last weekend. A younger Pole won the event. Two Poles on one podium. That just didn't happen when Malysz hit the scene 17 years ago. Perhaps it's a sign that new sports heroes are rising as the Polish Batman descends.
"Now I will have more time to think about everything," said Malysz, who may stick with ski jumping in some capacity. "I hope to do something pleasant. Ski jumping was my whole life. I started when I was 6 years old. But it's not only a sport for me. It's passion. I loved my job."