Heiden, Eric Arthur

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Eric Arthur Heiden

In 1980, American speed skater Eric Heiden (born 1958) became the first athlete ever to win five goldmedals in a single Olympics. After his record-setting performance, Heiden went on to compete on the cycling circuit and then became a doctor, enjoying a life of quiet obscurity.

Success Began with Training

Skates were Heiden's first shoes. Being born into a family of skaters—and growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, where winters are long and cold—gave Heiden plenty of opportunities to glide across the ice. Although hockey was his first love, at age 14 he committed all his time and energy to the sport of speed skating.

In 1972, Heiden's training was energized when Dianne Holum, the 1968 and 1972 Olympic speed skating champion, started him on an intensive training regimen. Combining on-and off-the-ice exercises, Heiden's focus became both physical and mental. His physical training concentrated on strengthening the most important muscles for any speed skater—the quadriceps—and included bicycling, weightlifting, and duck walking. His mental training pinpointed how his technique could give him an advantage over his competitors. That advantage would soon lead Heiden to five amazing victories at Lake Placid.

"Turned Ice Into Gold"

Throughout the mid to late 1970s, Heiden's hard work garnered him much success. In 1977, at only 19 years of age, he became the first American to win the World Speed Skating Championships. Thereafter, Heiden dominated every competition, amassing over 15 wins including the World Speed Skating Championships three times.

By 1980, Heiden had become the skater to beat at the Lake Placid Olympics. In fact, some had already accepted defeat. Frode Roenning, Norway's speed skating Olympian, told the Washington Post, "Heiden is the biggest, greatest skater there has ever been. The rest of us are waiting for the next Olympics," according to ESPN online. With all the publicity swarming around Heiden, many wondered if he could live up to his potential and to the hype. Heiden was unfazed by it, however. It seemed as if the grandness of the Olympics had no impact on him. In fact, ESPN online noted that Heiden told reporters that he felt that the audience's perception of the games was "overrated" and that the Olympics are "just big in the eyes of the American public."

That public watched in awe as Heiden continued his winning ways. In his next race, the 5,000 meter, no one could match his smooth strokes across the ice. He won his second gold by more than a second. In his third race, the 1,000 meter, Heiden extended his winning margin to one and half seconds. This dominance led Washington Post reporter Tom Boswell, as further noted by ESPN online, to comment, "Many athletes have muscles. Few have Heiden's strength of mind, his mulish will inside a thoroughbred's physique."

Heiden would need that strength of mind in his next race, the 1,500 meter. At the 600 meter mark, he slipped, but escaped catastrophe—"losing only a few hundredths of a second," commented ESPN online—and won his fourth gold medal. With this win, Heiden, as Dave Kindred of the Washington Post stated, had become "the first man ever to turn ice into gold." However, his gold medal count had not yet been completed. Heiden still had one more race—the 10,000 meter.

In 1980, the United States was in the midst of a harsh Cold War with their then-enemy the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The country wanted heroes and looked to the Olympics as one place to find them. After winning four gold medals, Heiden had become a national hero. As ESPN online quoted Ken Denlinger from the Post, "Heiden is not some Soviet recently emerged from a hidden lab after decades of selective breeding. He is American, from Green Bay Packer country." However, Heiden was not the only hero. The night before Heiden's last race, the American ice hockey team played their miraculous game against the USSR and won. The United States had more heroes to honor. Heiden had attended the game and, too excited about the win, could not fall asleep. Sleep is the body's time to recuperate and prepare for its next challenge. Heiden's body did not get that chance. He overslept, wolfed down some breakfast, and arrived at the track just in time for warm-ups.

Speed skating had never been a popular spectator sport—especially the 10,000 meter race. Overall, the competition is not other skaters, but the clock. At the Olympics, what spectators watched were "two people in funny suits gliding 6.2 miles in little circles with one hand behind their back," commented Washington Post reporter Dave Kindred. Gliding for 25 laps over 14 minutes and 12 seconds, Heiden beat the previous world record by six seconds and claimed his fifth gold medal. "That's the last world record I had ever expected to break," Heiden stated as noted by ESPN online. And, as he exited the rink, Heiden had what he would later recall as his "most memorable moment." He told reporter Jo-Ann Barnas of the Detroit Free Press that he thought to himself, "I'm never going to be in that kind of shape again."

Yet, much like his attitude towards the games itself, Heiden's attitude about winning a record-setting five gold medals was also blasé. Again, his focus had been skating the best that he could. "Gold, silver and bronze isn't special," he commented at a news conference, according to ESPN online. "It's giving 100 percent." Heiden had not realized the impressiveness of his wins or the worthiness of the medals. "Heck, gold medals, what can you do with them? I'd rather get a nice warmup suit," he told Kindred of the Washington Post. "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."

Rejected Fame for Medical School

Most Olympic medallists have cashed in on their wins by plastering their faces on cereal boxes or by pitching various products on television. Some return for further glory to their sport for the next Olympics. However, Heiden retired. "I didn't get into skating to be famous," he said according to ESPN online. He thought about continuing skating, but only if "I could still be obscure in an obscure sport.… I really liked it best when I was a nobody," he further commented.

Yet, Heiden never stopped being an athlete. He just switched sports. In the summer of 1980, he earned a spot as an alternate for the U.S. Olympic cycling team. For the next six years, he continued pedaling and in 1985, won the U.S. professional cycling championship. In 1986, Heiden raced in the prestigious Tour de France. During the race, he suffered what would be his first and only injury, a concussion. "I fell off the bike … there was blood coming out of my head," he recalled to Sports Illustrated. "That pretty much ended my cycling career."

By 1986, Heiden earned a Bachelor's degree in his pre-medicine studies, fulfilling his childhood dream. "I can remember in eighth grade making a conscious decision when I was I guess about 14 years old that I wanted to go into medicine," he told an interviewer for the University of California-Davis Medical Center (UCDMC). In 1986, Heiden entered Stanford University Medical School and faded back into an obscure, decidedly non-famous life.

By the late 1990s, Heiden had completed medical school and residency, married, became a father, joined the medical staff for the National Basketball Association's (NBA's) Sacramento Kings, and began working as an orthopedic surgeon for UCDMC. With surgery, Heiden had discovered a connection to sports. "There's a lot of preparation," he told Sports Illustrated. "The surgery itself takes maximum concentration and maximum effort, but the competition is with yourself."

Heiden had also discovered a unique connection to his patients, many of whom were injured athletes. "Having been an athlete, I have an idea what the players are going through, the pressures they're under, and what's going on mentally as they try to get back on their feet," he further told Sports Illustrated. And, with the passage of time, many of his patients as well as the general public had no idea that Doctor Heiden was Eric Heiden, five-time Olympic gold medallist. Heiden relished that fact: "I love that I can go out in public and only now and then does my face ring a bell for people." Heiden had moved on from the past, never reliving his glory days, but only focusing on the future and "being the best doctor I can be," as he commented to Sports Illustrated.

Returned to Olympics

In 2002, another Winter Olympics was being held on American soil and Salt Lake City had decided to honor past American Olympians. Heiden, however, passed on being part of the opening ceremonies after being notified that the U.S. Hockey team, not he, would be the last torch bearers. He did, however, accept the position as team physician for the American speed skating team. "I've always wanted to give back," Heiden told the Detroit Free Press. "And being a sports physician, I looked at that as an opportunity. It's a little strange (being in Salt Lake) but this is pretty rewarding." Also strange was the fact that it had been 22 years since Heiden's record-setting Olympics. "It seems like it was just a few years ago," Heiden said in the Detroit Free Press. "People always ask, 'Has it set in?' And I still say, 'It really hasn't.… I didn't consider myself a great athlete.'"


Detroit Free Press, February 6, 2002.

Sports Illustrated, November 16, 1998.

Washington Post, February 24, 1980.


"Eric Heiden was a Reluctant Hero," Sports Century,http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00014225.html (December 26, 2003).

"Heiden was America's Golden Boy in 1980," ESPN online, http://spots.espn.go.com/oly/winter02/gen/geature?id=1307965 (December 26, 2003).

"Profile: Dr. Eric Heiden," Pulse,http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/pulse/scripts/01_02/dr%20_eric_heiden (December 26, 2003).