Heiden, Eric

views updated Jun 11 2018

Eric Heiden


American speed skater

Speed skater Eric Heiden won five gold medals in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. There, he set Olympic records in the 500-, 1,000-, 1,500-, 5,000-, and 10,000-meter races, as well as a world record in the 10,000-meter race. After winning more gold medals than any other athlete in a single Winter Olympics and becoming an international celebrity, Heiden retired from skating.

First Love Was Hockey

Eric Arthur Heiden was born June 14, 1958, in Madison, Wisconsin into an athletic and competitive family. His father, Jack, was an orthopedic surgeon who specialized in sports medicine, as well as a cyclist and former fencing champion. His mother, Nancy, was Madison, Wisconsin's senior tennis champion, as well as a swimmer and cyclist. His sister, Beth, is fifteen months Heiden's junior and followed her brother onto the ice to win a bronze at the 1980 Olympics.

Skating is a popular sport in Wisconsin, where winters are long and frozen lakes are plentiful. Heiden's grandfather took him out on skates onto a frozen pond when he was just two years old. Skating was nothing more than family fun on Lake Mendota for the Heiden family when Eric was very young.

The children soon began racing their parents and, after a time, winning. Hockey is virtually the state pastime in Wisconsin, and Heiden joined a Pee Wee team. He made up for his small stature by being aggressive and alert. He was a strong shooter and dreamed of being a professional hockey player. His parents enrolled him and his sister in the Madison Figure Skating Club, which taught them skill and control on the ice, but also frustrated the young skaters, who wanted nothing more than to go fast and race around the rink. They found their niche when they switched to the local speed-skating club.

Found His Niche in the Oval

Both Heidens were leaders in their respective speed-skating divisions, and kept up a demanding training schedule for competitions, which are held weekends from December to February. Heiden's parents put a priority on schoolwork, and he was an honor student. He played soccer in the summer, and trained with the high-school cross-country running team. Dr. Heiden put his children on touring bikes when they were young to help them train their legs for speed skating. When Heiden was fourteen, he decided to leave hockey behind and concentrate on speed skating. He and his sister, who both skated in the American "millpond" or pack racing style, set out to learn the head-to-head racing system used in international competition.

The Heidens were fortunate to live seventy-five miles from one of the nation's two 400-meter oval rinks like those used in the Olympics and world championships. Every day, they attended high school in the morning, did their homework in the car, and skated. It was little more than chance that brought gold-medal-winning speed skater Dianne Holum to the University of Wisconsin just when Heiden was looking for a coach. She increased his already rigorous training, adding weight lifting, more running, and exercises to perfect his aerodynamic skater's crouch.

After a string of race wins, Heiden's break came in 1975, when he made the junior world Speed Skating team, which put him up against the best skaters in the world. Heiden's first European racing season was an eye-opener; speed skating is as popular in Europe as football is in America. Both he and sister Beth made the 1976 junior world team, and Heiden found himself intimidated that, at seventeen, he was often the youngest skater in his division, and much less experienced. He made his mark early on though, winning the 1,500-meter race in an impressive 2:02.82.


1958Born June 14 in Madison, Wisconsin
1961Begins to skate on his grandfather's pond
1972Chooses speed skating over hockey, begins training with Dianne Holum
1975Makes his first junior world championship team
1976Wins 1,500-meter event at junior world championship
1976Competes at Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria
1976Competes in his first Senior world championship
1977Becomes first American to win world championship
1977Becomes first to sweep junior world, world, and world sprint championships
1978Sweeps junior world, world, and world sprint championships
1979Sweeps world and world sprint championships
1980Wins five Olympic gold medals and retires

Both Heidens qualified for the 1976 Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria. Eric Heiden's best finish was seventh, but it was a good showing for a young and relatively inexperienced skater. At eighteen, he entered his sport's top competition, the Senior world Speed Skating championships at Heerenveen, the Netherlands. There, he broke the track record and won his weakest event, the 500-meter. After finishing third in the 1,500 and ninth in the 5,000, Heiden was surprised to find his name at the top of the points list for the All-Around title. Breaking his own record for the 10,000-meter race, Heiden became the first American to win the world All-Around Men's championship. He went on to take the all-around championship at the next junior worlds in Inzell, West Germany, and the world sprint championship in Alkmaar, Netherlands. Heiden repeated the unprecedented world, junior world, and world sprint championship sweep in 1978, and won both the world and world sprint championships in 1979.

Wowed the World, Modestly

Heiden was one of the first American skaters invited to the Russian Cup competition at the Medeo Sports Center at Alma Ata, one of the world's fastest rinks. Though it was not documented, Heiden set a new record for the 1,000-meter event. The world speed-skating community was shocked that an American speed skater could perform so well. Heiden credited his success to the fact that European skaters are driven hard and expected to perform well. Heiden skated because he loved it, and had only to please himself. His success inspired American interest in the sport. Despite the international accolades he was raking in, Heiden remained modest.

Both Heidens easily made the 1980 Olympic Speed Skating team to compete in Lake Placid, New York. With his championships behind him, there was much more expected of Heiden than at his first Olympics; now, he was a star. Heiden's longtime friends and neighbors in Wisconsin, Mary and Sarah Doctor, also made the 1980 Olympic speed-skating team.

Heiden started the Olympics with the 500-meter race, his weakest event. He was paired to skate against Soviet world-record holder and gold medallist Yevgeny Kulikov. After a close race, Heiden pulled ahead to beat both Kulikov and his record to win the 500-meter gold. For his next event, the 5,000-meter race, Heiden was paired against Dutch skater Hilbert Van Der Dium. After trailing at the start of the race, Heiden again pulled in front to finish first, earning his second gold medal of the 1980 Games, and breaking another Olympic record.

It would have been unthinkable for Heiden to come away with anything less than a gold medal for the 1,000-meter event, and he did not disappoint. He never gave up the lead to Canadian Gaetan Boucher, and broke yet another Olympic record. Skaters were beginning to express their feelings of futility when skating against Heiden, and were not shy about their hopes that he would retire and give someone else a chance to win.

With two races to go, Heiden was not about to give any skater that chance. A slip during the 1,500-meter race against Norway's Kai Arne Stenshjemmet caused the crowd to gasp, as they watched Heiden break his rhythm and nearly fall. At the end of a race, when most skaters tire, Heiden mustered a burst of strength for the final push. He broke the standing Olympic record by four seconds and took his fourth gold. Heiden was just relieved that his most challenging event was over.

The night before Heiden's final event, the 10,000-meter race, the underdog U.S. hockey team was playing its final game, against the Soviet Union. Heiden was an avid hockey fan, and two of his former Pee Wee league mates were playing on the team that night. In a history making upset, the U.S. team beat the Soviets in the final moments of play. Heiden could not resist celebrating the triumphtermed the "Miracle on Ice"with the rest of America and his friends in Lake Placid. Heiden awoke the next morning to find he had overslept. He dressed in minutes, grabbed some bread for breakfast, and rushed off to the rink.

Awards and Accomplishments

1977Junior world, world, and world sprint champion
1978Junior world, world, and world sprint champion
1979World and world sprint champion
1980First place, 500-meter race, Lake Placid Olympic Games
1980First place, 1,000-meter race, Lake Placid Olympic Games
1980First place, 1,500-meter race, Lake Placid Olympic Games
1980First place, 5,000-meter race, Lake Placid Olympic Games
1980First place, 10,000-meter race, Lake Placid Olympic Games
1980Second place, world championship

Where Is He Now?

After his retirement from skating, Heiden took up competitive cycling until 1986. He won the U.S. Professional cycling championship in 1985 and rode in the 1986 Tour de France. He was a commentator for four Winter Olympics for CBS Sports, from 1984 to 1994. Heiden graduated from Stanford Medical School and followed in his father's footsteps to become an orthopedic surgeon and sports team physician. He now lives in Sacramento, California, with his wife, Karen Drews. He practices at the University of California at Davis and is an assistant professor there. He was chosen to serve as the official U.S. Speed-skating team doctor for the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. "I feel that I'm giving back to the sport of speed skating, which in the long run has been pretty good to me," he is quoted as saying on the UC Davis Web site.

Retired on Top

Heiden was paired with the 10,000-meter world-record holder, Viktor Leskin of the Soviet Union. The ice was particularly fast that morning, and Heiden knew he would have to outdo himself to compete. Both skaters left the starting block strong, and kept a steady and graceful rhythm, with Heiden setting a blistering pace. Coach Dianne Holum was on the sidelines encouraging Heiden to slow down, for fear he'd tire too soon. With two miles left to race, Heiden's left arm began to droop, a telltale sign of fatigue.

Yet, despite his fatigue, Heiden's final time was 14:28.13, shattering Liskin's record and earning Heiden his fifth gold. In fifty-six years of Olympic speed skating, the United States had only earned nine gold medals. Heiden earned his five in just ten days. Between the previous night's hockey win and Heiden's wins, all of America was celebrating. President Jimmy Carter called the U.S. hockey coach, and may have tried to phone Heiden. But in a move characteristic of the skater, who treasured his privacy, Heiden had disconnected his phone.

Heiden carried the American flag in the closing ceremonies of the Games, and was received at the White House soon after. He then rushed off to compete in another world championship in the Netherlands, where he relinquished his four-year reign, finishing second. While still basking in his golden glow, Heiden announced his retirement from skating. Uncomfortable with the celebrity that came with his gold medals, he eschewed most endorsement opportunitiesincluding the coveted Wheaties cereal box. "I really liked it best when I was a nobody," he said when he retired.


Address: Eric Heiden, University of California Davis Medical Center, 2805 J Street, Suite #300, Sacramento, CA 95817. Email: [email protected].



Fox, Mary Virginia. The Skating Heidens. Enslow Publishers, 1981.

Munshower, Suzanne. Eric Heiden: America's Olympic Golden Boy. Tempo Books, 1980.


"Eric Heiden." U.S. Olympic Team Web site. http://www.usolympicteam.com/athlete_profiles/e_heiden.html (January 15, 2003.)

"Heiden wins fifth gold, most for an individual." Washington Post online. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/sports/longterm/olympics1998/history/memories/80-heiden.htm (January 15, 2003.)

"Profile: Dr. Eric Heiden." University of California at Davis Web site. http://pulse.ucdavis.edu/scripsts/01_02/dr%20_eric_heiden.pdf (January 15, 2003.)

"Whatever happened to Speed skater Eric Heiden." Christian Science Monitor online. http://csmweb2.ecmweb.com/durable/2000/11/16/text/p23s3.html (January 15, 2003.)

Sketch by Brenna Sanchez