He had been so good in the first part of his event, the ski jump, that Walter Malmquist needed only to finish ninth in the second half, the cross-country skiing, to become the first American ever to win a medal in the Nordic combined event of the Winter Olympics.
Alas, even finishing ninth seemed beyond his reach, for as good as the little guy is off the 70-meter jump -- he was second among 31 flyers with leaps near 275 feet -- he is mediocre at running on skis for nine miles up, down and around the mountain.
But who knows? These are the Olympics. We can dream. The first time Walter Malmquist ever came to Lake Placid, a kid 13 years old, he saw the 70-meter jump and said no way he was going to jump off that. Ten years later, he flies 275 feet. "We assess our capabilities," says this Redford look-alike who graduated from Dartmouth and wants to go to law school at Virginia, "and then we reevaluate our expectations."
"I have a feeling," said his mother, Cynthia, there in the crowd of maybe 1,000 people at Mount Van Hoevenberg, "that if Walter is ever going to do anything, this is the day. Not that I'm hoping he gets a medal. He'd be very happy to finish in the top 10."
Only one American ever did that in the Nordic combined, Rolf Monsen, finishing ninth here in 1932. To be the best American ever at this ski jump-cross country double, it turned out that Malmguist would need to run his 15 kilometers in 52 minutes.
That is not a good time by Olympic standards. Of 31 runners today, 23 would finish in less than 52 minutes. The best time would be 47 minutes, 44.54 seconds.
For Walter Malmquist, though, 52 minutes is very good. And yet, when he poled away from the start at noon today, he had in mind another number: 50. He wanted a 50-minute run. He didn't want to beat only Rolf Monsen. "I wanted to be in the top five, and so I knew I would have to run the race of my life," he said. "That's why I started the way I did."
The way he started was fast. Very fast. "Stupidity," Malmquist later would call it. From his mother, from his father and younger brother, from most of the 1,000 spectators on a bright winter day -- from the full throat of the people came a chant, "Wal-ter . . . Wal-ter."
The guy's mother is a doll. Cynthia Malmquist and her husband, Skip, of Hanover, N.H., paid the freight for 17 years of this playing in the snow. Now, at the Olympics, with the dream made real, the mother of the hero had her movie camera in hand and she trained it on her son as he moved out.
She thinks Walter is wonderful. The way she talks about him, you'd think he was her son and she loved him. He's the kind of guy, she said, who sends you roses. When he made his second big jump the other day, the first thing he did was ski over and kiss his fiancee, Nancy Schwartzman. He's that kind of guy, his mother said.
The Nordic combined is no easy deal. Malmquist's teammat, Kerry Lynch, has ridden bulls in rodeos. He has boxed.Lynch says the Nordic combined is tougher. "My gut aches," he said today after finishing the 15 kilometers in 49 minutes 44.39 seconds. Nothing I've done hurts this much. This is harder than running a marathon because here you're using your arms, too, pulling and pushing yourself up the mountain."
Lynch's father, a Coloradoan who grew up skiing, had Kerry on skis at 6 or 7. The tot jumped off hay bales and then moguls, always moving up as capability caught expectation. "Ker-ry. . . Ker-ry," the chant was today, the Lynches and Malmquists joining voices for their boys in the beautiful white USA suits.
"C'mon, Squeaker," screamed Lynch's older brother, Doug, who hung the nickname on Kerry when he was an undergrown high school junior with a high-pitched voice. Kerry grew four inches that summer, Doug said, and now he calls him "Sir."
One-third of the way through today's race, with the skiers out of sight in the mountain woods, the public address announcer said Malmquist's time was 17:05.8. Cynthia Malmquist's softly said, "Oh, God." And when Walter puffing by the stands, the vapor of his breath transformed into icicles on his chin, his mother watched him pass under a footbridge and said, "Now he's under the bridge. Oh, come on, Walter, don't be under the weather, too."
She tried to laugh. She didn't make it.
Because he is so good at jumping, Malmquist always is asked why he doesn't just jump and leave the combined alone. "Because I love Renaissance people, I love people with different interests and different experiences. I want experience that opens doors instead of closes them. I couldn't be happy just as a jumper."
The idea, Malmquist said, is to keep reaching. "My mother's famous quote to me is, "What if a man's grasp should exceed his reach, then there's no God.'"
Two-thirds of the way through the race, Cynthia Malmquist thought she saw her son's blond hair bobbing beyond the crest of a hill. "Here comes Walter!" she announced, only to realize that the gold-medal favorite, Ulrich Wehling of East Germany, was barely 100 yards ahead.
"No, it can't be Walter," she decided, a second before she could see it was, in fact, her son, "WALTER! Keep up with him, Walter."
The cheering carried Malmquist. He had started too fast, too stupidly. He had reached too far this day. But the cheering carried him. His calves tightened early. The torturous uphill climb from the Pump House Loop to Low Notch, taken two times today, might have caused him to drop out of the race. The cheering carried him.
"In any other country except American, if thoses guys hadn't been yelling for me. I wouldn't even have finished," Malmquist said. "Every time I came past the bleachers, everyone was going nuts. Quit in front of them? There wasn't any choice."
Of course there was. Europeans get rich skiing. Their life depends on skiing. For skiing, Malmquist may get $3,00 a year in addition to his trainig expenses. He can quit, anytime he wants to. He will be a lawyer one day, not a ski instructor. He worked 10 years in his grandfather's sawmill to pay his way to college. Skiing didn't do it.
He had a choice, then, and he made it, choosing to go on though by now, with 100 yards to go, Ulrich Wehling had finished almost three minutes earlier and Walter Malmquist had no shot at a medal and no shot at the top 10.
"Riding a bull lasts eight seconds, this lasts 50 minutes," said Kerry Lynch, "and it beats your brains out." But with no chance at any glory, Walter Malmquist kept coming up the hill until, 10 yards from the finish line, Cynthia Malmquist aimed her movie camera at him and turned it on.
"Hooray," the mother said. "He finished!"
And now, her eye to the lens, Cynthia Malmquist giggled in delight.
Walter Malmquist's time was 52:54.59, the 27th best of 31 skiers today, and he finished 12th in the Nordic combined. He said he was very happy. As for another Olympics in four years, he said. "I hope to keep knocking on the door with the gold medal behind it."