Olympic Stories

Eric Heiden A Gold Medal Year

Eric Heiden  A Gold Medal Year

Born in Madison, Wisconsin on June 14, 1958, Eric Authur Heiden is a former long-track speedskater and road cyclist. For a speedskater, Heiden was always considered quite the impressive specimen. At 6-1, he was an incredibly muscular athlete, which surprised everyone unfamiliar with just how fast he could skate. Today, he is an iconic athlete, still holding the record for winning 5 Gold Medals at a single Winter Olympic Games.

Unlike many other world-class athletes, Heiden wasn’t a lifelong skater. He played quite a few sports growing up in Wisconsin and was never really considered a standout skater in any fashion until his career started. Though he would ultimately go on to break records and to clean house at the Olympic and World Championships levels, Heiden was very soft-spoken and almost nonchalant with the way he came across to the public at large.

In 1980 he would become one of the most famous Olympians of all time, and even with such fantastic athletes of the modern era like Michael Phelps, Eric Heiden’s name is still mentioned in 2013.

Heiden’s Record-Setting 1980 Olympic Performance

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Eric Heiden’s personality is that he never wanted to be the center of attention. In fact, he never fully approved of the attention surrounding him even on smaller levels. Going into the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, Heiden’s goal was simply to compete in his events, not to become an American hero and an Olympic legend.

As a speedskater, Eric had qualified to compete in five separate events: The 500 meter, the 1,000 meter, the 1,500 meter, the 5,000 meter, and the 10,000 meter. Each event is quite different and takes a lot more than speed to win. In the shorter events, a skater must have a flawless, fast break and keep up a frenetic pace. In the longer events, a carefully measured pace is needed, with enough stamina to finish strongly. It is incredibly rare to find an athlete able to excel in shorter distances who is also able to compete in longer stretches.

Competing in multiple events in the 1976 Olympics in Austria, Heiden did not medal at all. So when he won the overall title in the World Championships the very next year, the world was impressed but still thought it may have been something of a fluke or a one-time great run. However, after continuing to show success up until the 1980 Games, folks in Norway and other parts of Europe took Heiden very seriously as an all-around contender, even if folks in the USA knew very little about him.

In the 1980 Olympic Games, the world became very familiar with Heiden over a 9-day period. And it all started on February 15 with his first race – the 500m, pairing him against former Gold Medalist and record holder Yevgeny Kulikov, a strong, fast, determined Soviet skater. Not only did Heiden defeat the Soviet, but he set the new Olympic record of 38.03. Though it was incredibly impressive, the best was yet to come.

The next day’s race was the 5,000m, 10-times the length Heiden had won previously. Up against another world record holder, Kai Arne Stenshjemmet, Heiden won his second race by more than a full second. His third race was the 1,000m, which he won by 1.5 seconds. The 1,000m, Heiden’s fourth race, pitted him against more impressive competition, including another run with Stenshjemmet, and Heiden had a bad slip but still recovered to win his 4th Olympic Gold Medal.

For Olympic fans, you may remember that something else very impressive happened that year in Lake Placid. Do you believe in miracles? The USA certainly did, as they defeated the Soviets en route to their own gold medal, with Heiden in attendance. Eric said that seeing the USA hockey team win was very inspiring for him, and in the 10,000m race, Heiden not only won but shattered the world record by an amazing 6.2 seconds.

Though other Olympians have matched and even surpassed Heiden’s performance, he is still the only athlete to ever win 5 individual gold medals in the Winter Olympic Games.

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