The 1980 Winter Olympics will be forever remembered for the performance of the American Olympic Hockey Team, who beat the Russians and won the Gold Medal. This was a monumental event in American Sports History, but the most astonishing performance at Lake Placid was accomplished by a 21-year old pre-med student from Wisconsin.
Eric Heiden gave up his first love, hockey, at the age of 15 to concentrate on the sport he was best at, Speed Skating. He excelled at the junior level and began to compete against the World’s best a few years later. He competed in the 1976 Olympics in Innsbrook, finishing 7th in the 1,500 meters and 19th in the 5,000. He would take over as the best skater in the world in 1977, winning the Overall Men’s World Title at 18 in 1977. He would repeat in 1978 and 1979. He entered the Olympics as the favorite in all five events. Heiden was the only man ever to win both the World Sprint and All-Round Titles in the same year. He did it three straight times. Talking about his sport Heiden said “It’s a clean sport. There is no one else to blame, no one to rely on. You just have a pair of skates.”
Before the opening ceremonies, Eric Heiden was the biggest story for these Lake Placid Olympics. He was the favorite in all five events, also the most sought-after American athlete at the Games. 1972 Gold Medalist Annie Henning summed up the mood best “My God, I don’t believe what I am seeing when I see Eric skate. He just isn’t real.” This put Eric in a very different situation. “I have always skated because it’s fun. American skaters have no other reason than the fun of it.” Eric Heiden was no longer an obscure athlete in an obscure sport, but an American celebrity. His time was no longer his.
In the first event on Friday, Eric drew the first pairing with another of the favorites, Yevgeny Kulikov of the Soviet Union. It was a good pairing for both men, because, they could race each other. Skating about even through the race, Eric exploded with his last three strokes off the final turn to edge out the Russian. He then waited to see if his time would hold up, it did!
Next up was the 5,000. Paired with Norwegian Tom Eric Oxholm, Heiden fell behind early, trailing by 4.47 seconds at 1,400-meter mark. His mother lamented “He’ll never make it up. We’ve lost it.” Behind an American crowd, Eric kept putting up 33-second laps, cutting into the lead. By the halfway point he was only down two seconds, then he passed him at 3,800 meters. He began to stretch his lead in the final 1,200 meters and won going away in 7:02.29. Oxholm would earn the Bronze, but finish 3.3 seconds behind Heiden. Another Norwegian Kai Arne Stenshjemmet, the World Record holder, was still to skate. His times led Heiden for most of his skate, but nobody could match the speed the American could sustain on the finishing laps, Stenshjemmet finished just under a second behind to gain the silver medal.
After the 5,000 Heiden was asked what he would do the next day. “Huh? Tomorrow? What’s today? Saturday? That’s right. What’s next? The 1,000? Oh, that’s right. I guess I’ll start thinking about the 1,000.”
It was the 1,000 on Tuesday. Heiden said, “The secret to the 1,000 is to open up as fast as possible in the first 200 meters.” He was paired with Canadian Gaetan Boucher, who would skate the race of his life, and earn a silver medal, only to lose to Heiden by 1.5 seconds! In an event that is usually decided by fractions of seconds, this was a monumental blow-out. Just to compare; the difference between second and ninth in the event was only 1.28 seconds.
Two days later Eric overwhelmed the field in the 1,500, winning by 1.37 seconds. Frone Ronning of Norway, who earned a bronze in the 1,000 summed up the competition best “It’s not exciting to be skating now. The medals are delivered before the race.”
That left the most grueling race of them all, the 10,000 meters. Eric would later say about the 10,000, “You had to pay your dues, train like crazy, and be a technically good skater.” It wasn’t as easy for him as the 1,000, “because the 1,000 came easy to me, even on a bad day I could win.” He spent the night before going crazy at the USA vs Soviet Union Hockey Game. Completely psyched by the Americans performance he obliterated the World Record in 10,000 meters in a time of 14:28.13 fifteen hours later. This shattered the record by 6.20 seconds! He came into the Games with unprecedented expectations, then seemed to improve with every event. It was the equivalent of winning the 50, 100, 200, 500, and 1,500 meters in swimming or the 100, 200, 400, 1,500, 5,000 in track. As his coach Dianne Holum said before the first event, “Eric is the only one of the good skaters who is going in every event. They’re all specialist taking a crack at him.”
Eric Heiden would retire from speed skating after the Olympics, but his athletic career would continue. He became a world-class cyclist, being inducted into the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame in 1999. He also took up hockey again, He transferred to Stanford where he earned Medical degree in 1991. He became an orthopedic Surgeon in Sacramento, also serving as the team physician for the Sacramento Kings. In 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014 he was the team physician for the American Olympic Speed Skating Team. He has recently opened clinics in Utah.
We will leave his legacy to Speed Skater Dan Jansen, a legend in his own right, “I have always felt it is the single greatest feat in the history of sports.” Nine days, five Gold Medals…Dan Jansen just may be right.
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