A Leap Back in Time
It’s the summer of 2023, and I’m in Hanover for my 40th class reunion. Starting with the class of 1983 golf outing at Montcalm Country Club, I’m going to everything—the DOC House reception, my class tent, crashing in the dorm. For various reasons I hadn’t participated in any reunions until my 35th in 2018. I dipped a toe in for that one— just half a day—but I enjoyed it and decided to go all in this time.
At the golf course I hit a few warmup shots on the range. As I wait for my tee time, I overhear snippets of a conversation behind me: “Blah blah blah ... ’78 ... blah blah blah ... Walter Malmquist ...”
Walter Malmquist! My mind races into hyperdrive. Walter Malmquist ’78 is here?
I have never met Malmquist before, and yet he was instrumental in teaching me profound lessons that have shaped my life. I feel I need to say something, but I am a dignified 61-year-old education professional. Even though I only have a few minutes before teeing off and never seeing him again, I can’t just go fanboy on him, can I?
I can. I turn around and ask, “Walter Malmquist, the ski jumper?” He says “Yes?” And I blurt out the following story: It was February 1983, my final winter at Dartmouth. I had started to appreciate how the passage of time was accelerating. I had never really gotten into the spirit of the Winter Carnival, dismissing it as another excuse for frat boy excess. But realizing this was The Last Time, I decided to watch the ski jumping over at the golf course.
Not all the jumpers were NCAA athletes. Dartmouth offered ski jumping as a phys ed class, but to earn the credit you had to jump at Carnival. About five of these brave souls wobbled down the inrun, didn’t bother trying to time a leap, and during their brief flight adopted airborne positions that were less about aerodynamics and more about survival. Several of them crashed as they landed, but the crowd applauded them all for their courage.
Then it was time for the real ski jumpers. They had fancy speed suits and numbered bibs, and the difference in performance was obvious. Their tuck position was solid as they gathered speed toward takeoff. In the air they made minor adjustments in hand, arm, or body position to maintain the best aerodynamics. They flew 30 to 40 meters and landed with varying degrees of balance and smoothness. These people knew what they were doing.
When the competition ended, we were treated to a jump by Malmquist, the World Cup veteran who had jumped for the U.S. Olympic teams in 1976 and 1980. I think he wore jeans and a turtleneck sweater. On the inrun he held a compact tuck, in perfect balance. He exploded off the launch point into a textbook airfoil shape that he held—without any bobble or adjustment—as he glided effortlessly through the air. It looked like he could have flown forever, but knowing that he was running out of hill, he gracefully unfurled out of his airfoil shape into a perfect landing at about 52 meters.
The crowd went wild.
Seeing the full dynamic range of human capability—from novice to “pretty good” to expert to world-class Olympian—was jawdropping and left me with lessons I carry to this day. I empathized with the newcomers. As an engineering professor for three decades, I was reminded of my own students, in need of a guide. I also marveled at the humility of Malmquist. The great skier was not showy or boastful, something I’ve tried to keep in mind as I’ve enjoyed my own professional success.
As I mention this to Malmquist on the golf course, he listens, patiently and kindly, with an expression that goes from bemused to incredulous and back again. When I’m done, he graciously thanks me. We ended up playing nine holes together. He’s still involved in ski jumping, now helping coaches provide age-appropriate guidance to the next generation of athletes.
He's a great guy, with a great sense of humor. At one point, he hits a drive that slices toward the woods. “That’s what I liked about ski jumping,” he says. “You always go straight!”
JOHN McNEILL is the dean and a professor of engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.