Eric Heiden was a reluctant hero
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
Eric Heiden never asked for his moment of fame. It was more than the customary 15 minutes, too. More like nine days.
The muscular speed skater never sought the glory, although he skated for the gold. An adoring public thrust it upon him.
In becoming the Man of Gold, the sturdy skater established five Olympic records, including one world mark. The 21-year-old took home more gold from the 1980 Winter Olympics than Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland, West Germany, Italy, Canada, Hungary, Japan, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and France combined.
"Heiden's procession into history was measured and stately," wrote Pete Axthelm of Newsweek. "By day he was a handsome machine in gold; by night he donned his red and blue sweat suit and strode across a torchlit red carpet to the awards platform on Mirror Lake. His evenings ended with his head bent to receive a new gold medal, as chants of 'Er-ic, Er-ic,' filled the cold Olympic nights."
In a sport that requires intense dedication and maturity, Heiden set new standards of achievement -- not for the approval of outsiders, but for the love of the sport and its challenges. He said that from a speed skater's point of view, the Olympics were overrated. "They're just big in the eyes of the American public," he said.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Heiden, who had a 32-inch waist and 27-inch thighs, never felt comfortable with the madness surrounding him. After winning his fifth race, his thoughts were not about fame.
"Heck, gold medals, what can you do with them?" he said. "I'd rather get a nice warmup suit. That's something I can use. Gold medals just sit there. When I get old, maybe I could sell them if I need the money."
Some might have considered Heiden's attitude cavalier. Cynics thought they saw a disingenuous lightness in Heiden's casual dismissal of what he accomplished. But that's just the way he always had been, and he had no thoughts of changing. He didn't want anyone putting him on a pedestal. He'd rather have a few beers with friends than sit on a dais accepting an award.
But even though he didn't like it, he had created a fuss. "For this doctor's son from the Midwest is an alchemist on skates, the first man ever to turn ice into gold," wrote Dave Kindred in The Washington Post.
Heiden knew his fame would pass because, as he said, his sport was an exercise in anonymity in America, where "people like contact sports so they can see blood.
"I didn't get into skating to be famous. It's not a sport you get famous at. If I wanted to be famous, I would have stuck with hockey."
At the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, at the age of 17, Heiden finished seventh in the 1,500 meters and 19th in the 5,000 meters. His younger sister Beth came in 11th in the 3,000 meters.
The next year, Heiden shocked the speed-skating world by winning the overall title at the world championships. Even Heiden wondered if his performance was a fluke. It wasn't. He also won the title in 1978 and 1979, becoming undisputed king of a sport that epitomized power, pain and poise.
While his championships made him a household name in Norway and the Netherlands, where speed skating is taken seriously, he still was a relative unknown in the United States outside of Madison. Those who knew the sport thought it wouldn't be a surprise if Heiden, who was on leave from the University of Wisconsin, swept through the 1980 Olympics.
His first race was on Feb. 15, and it was at the distance that he was considered vulnerable: 500 meters. Paired against 1976 Olympic gold medalist and world record holder Yevgeny Kulikov, Heiden raced neck and neck most of the way. But coming out of the last curve, the Soviet skater slipped slightly and Heiden pulled ahead during the crossover.
"I felt that I got almost a slingshot effect," he said, "and that's what helped me come back and beat him in the last 100 meters." His Olympic record 38.03 seconds was .34 of a second faster than Kulikov.
The next day, Heiden took his second gold, finishing a little more than a second ahead of world record holder Kai Arne Stenshjemmet in the 5,000 meters. After Heiden won the 1,000 meters by 1.5 seconds on Feb. 19, Tom Boswell of The Washington Post wrote, "Many athletes have muscles. Few have Heiden's strength of mind, his mulish will inside a thoroughbred's physique."
Midway through his 1,500-meter duel with runner-up Stenshjemmet on Feb. 21, Heiden slipped when he hit a rut in the ice. But he quickly steadied himself, losing only a few hundredths of a second as he continued on to win his fourth gold.
On the night before his drive for five, Heiden attended the U.S.-Soviet Union hockey game. Heiden was so thrilled by the American victory that he had difficulty falling asleep that night and ended up oversleeping. Grabbing a few pieces of bread for breakfast, he hurried to the rink. None of this stopped him from breaking the 10,000-meter world record by 6.2 seconds, winning in 14:28.13. "That's the last world record I had ever expected to break," he said.
Heiden told the media he was going to retire at the end of the season. "Maybe if things had stayed the way they were, and I could still be obscure in an obscure sport, I might want to keep skating," he said. "I really liked it best when I was a nobody."
Having already climbed mountains in the Alps, the free-spirited Heiden hunted for other challenges after finishing second in the 1980 world championships. For the most part, he shunned endorsements, accepting only a select few and not becoming the pitchman that previous U.S. Olympic stars Mark Spitz and Bruce Jenner had become.
He turned to cycling but failed to qualify for the 1980 Olympics. He said that if he had qualified, he would have defied President Carter's boycott of the Moscow Games. "Sports and politics don't mix," he said.
In 1985, he won the U.S. professional cycling championship. He competed in the world's premier event, the Tour de France in 1986, where his experience ended in a frightening crash and with him laid out prone in the back of an ambulance. He was a speed-skating analyst for television for the four Winter Olympics from 1984 through 1994.
Heiden also succeeded where it counted most for him. He graduated from Stanford Medical School and, following in his father's footsteps, became an orthopedic surgeon.
While Heiden prefers to downplay his golden moments, announcer Keith Jackson doesn't. "What he did in 1980 was one of a kind," Jackson said, "and we will probably never see it again."