The guy making the introductions outside a restaurant in Wisla,
Poland, is Jan Poloczek, the town's mayor. He's standing in
front of a glass case about the size of a phone booth. Inside
the case, protected from the elements and the hands of hungering
fans, is Adam Malysz (pronounced Mol-Wish), Poland's most
polished ski jumper. The hometown hero has on gloves, boots and
a flying suit emblazoned with more logos than a Formula One race
car. Dangling from his neck is a ribbon; dangling from the
ribbon, a medal. His features are frozen in a smile; his pale
eyes and paler face are as waxy as his skis. Malysz is cast in
"Meet Chocolate Adam," says Poloczek. Eight confectioners took
264 hours to build the 400-pound Malysz, the jumper who melts in
your heart, not on the ramps.
For Malysz, success has been sweet and soaring. In 2001 he
emerged from a three-year funk to win 10 of the last 14 World Cup
events, including the storied Four Hills series in Austria and
Germany. At Four Hills he had the highest score and biggest
margin of victory in the event's history. He then took gold (on
the normal hill) and silver (large hill) at the World Nordic
Championships in Finland and snared the World Cup title, the
first for a Polish ski jumper. To his countrymen, Malysz's
landing was as historic as the one Neil Armstrong made on the
February 13, 2002
With seven victories this season, the 24-year-old Malysz came to
the Olympics with the Pole position in points on the circuit. He
took bronze in the K90 on Sunday and is considered one of the
favorites in today's K150. "Adam's chance for gold is great, but
so is the pressure on him," says Pawel Wlodarezyk, head of the
Polish Ski Federation. "He wants our press not to predict he will
win. Bad things can happen."
In Poland bad things often do. Malysz's homeland has a long
history of being crushed, pillaged, annexed and partitioned. For
more than a century it was wiped clean off the map. The nation's
Winter Olympics credo could be, Expect the worst. Since the fluky
victory of ski jumper Wojciech Fortuna at the 1972 Sapporo Games
in Japan (his one and only international victory), Poland has not
won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
The favorite to snap this drought is 5'6", maybe 120 pounds and
the punch line in hundreds of Polish jokes, many of which have
been compiled in a popular Polish paperback. Some call Malysz the
Polish Batman; others, the Flying Pole. "I don't actually fly, I
jump," he says, helpfully.
Of course ski jumping is not really skiing at all. With one swift
leg snap at the top of the inrun, jumpers drop into the iced ruts
of the ramp and plane into the wind. It's kind of like the
standing broad jump but quicker because competitors move faster
and have to time their jumps just right. "When Adam is in good
shape, he has the best takeoff in the sport," says Jens Weissflog
of Germany, winner of three Olympic golds in the event. "No legs
are more powerful."
Here's a witticism making the rounds: At a Sunday service not far
from the hometown of Pope John Paul II, a priest asks the kids in
his congregation, Who's the most famous Pole in the world? In
unison they scream, Adam Malysz!
At the recent World Cup meet in Zakopane, Poland, the name of
Wisla's favorite son reverberated through the bleachers. "Adam!
Adam! Adam!" squealed hundreds of would-be Eves. Says 15-year-old
Sylvia Jonek of Krakow, "We love Adam so much! He's simple, just
like us. Not bigger than his shoes."
In fact Malysz's shoes were once too big for him. At six, while
leaping from the lip of a jump, his boots and skis came off in
mid-flight. "It was amazing," recalls his father, Jan. "Adam fell
to the ground, but his boots and skis kept going."
Malysz's career was not an unfettered ascent or, for that matter,
descent. In 1996, at the maddeningly precocious age of 19, he won
his first World Cup event, beating Weissflog in his final
tournament. By the end of '97 Malysz had two more victories and
eight podium finishes.
"Adam was sent to Earth by God to show other competitors how to
jump," his former coach Pavel Mikeska once gushed. Austrian
energy-drink maker Red Bull, whose slogan is Red Bull Gives You
Wings, had its own divine revelation and signed Malysz to a
bullish, long-term deal in '95. Trouble is, he didn't live up to
the billing. The decline that began when he placed 51st and 52nd
in jumps at the '98 Olympics was as steep as any ramp. Through
2000 he had three top 10 finishes, a fourth and two sevenths. At
one point he considered returning to his job as a roofer to
support his wife, Izabela, and their infant daughter, Karolina.
All kinds of theories were advanced for Malysz's tailspin: He was
having communication problems with Mikeska, a Czech; he was
having psychological problems with fame, fortune and family.
"When a ski jumper gets married, he loses concentration and three
meters in distance," offers Finnish team coach Mika Kojonkoski.
"When he has his first child, he loses another three meters. When
he becomes a father for the second time, he needs to give it up."
Weissflog blames gear. "Late in 1997 Adam changed the brands of
his skis and flying suits, which was wrong," he says. "Neither
product suited him. His technique changed."
Mikeska took the fall for Malysz's fall and was fired in '99.
"Pavel was energetic, maybe too energetic," says Apoloniusz
Tajner, the sedate Wisla sporting-goods store owner who replaced
him. "Adam had to calm down."
Tajner got rid of the skis and suit in question, and to recapture
Malysz's feel for flight, he hired a team psychologist. The
shrink taught Malysz yogalike relaxation exercises and preached
what Tajner calls the "cut-off head." The progressive program,
now in its third year, involves "leaving your head at home so
that at any moment you can think only of the jump." Before
learning to sever his skull, Malysz was troubled by a recurring
nightmare of tumbling down a ski jump. "Now, Adam does not dream
at all," says Izabela.
To rebuild Malysz's muscle mass, Tajner hired a team
physiotherapist. Though the particulars of his regimen remain
closely guarded, one detail has slipped out: The staple of his
diet is not birdseed but bananas and rolls.
More food for thought: The ski jumper with the fattest chance to
upend Malysz today was once a borderline anorexic. Last month
Germany's Sven Hannawald--whose radical crash diet in 2000
reduced him to what his coach calls the "skeletonal
level"--became the first jumper in the 50-year history of Four
Hills to win all four legs.
The residents of Wisla aren't worried. The town's world-class ice
cream emporium, Cukiernia u Janeczki, reports brisk sales of its
ciastko mistrza (champion's cake). The three-zloty (75-cent),
three-layer pastry is topped by a meringue ski ramp and yet
another Chocolate Adam, this one with skis propped up in a
"If Adam wins gold medal, will be very nice for Wisla," says
Mayor Poloczek. "We may make him gold statue people cannot eat."
He mulls the ramifications of this municipal undertaking and
mutters: "If gold, more people will want to steal. More problems.
Better Adam stays chocolate!"
"Adam was sent to Earth by God to show other competitors how to
jump," says his former coach.