Renaissance on Ice

Ren·ais·sance man

  1. a person with many talents or areas of knowledge.
  2. a man who does everything and does it well.

Of course everyone knows that in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union and went on to win gold.  However, what captured the lion’s share of my attention back then was the source of all the other gold medals.  The United States managed just five other gold medals in the ’80 games…and all from the same individual.  Over a nine day span in Lake Placid, New York, Eric Heiden put on arguably the single greatest performance of any athlete in Olympic history.

For that one year I absolutely idolized the man.  It is true that my adoration has somewhat waned over time, and his exploits have taken a distant back seat to the famed Miracle on Ice.  I have never forgotten his 1980 mastery, though.  What he did during those games as a speed skater was a microcosm of his entire life.  He did everything, and did it well.  Better than anyone.

There are five individual events in speed skating at the Olympics for men.  These include the 500-meters, 1,000 meters, 1,500-meters, 5,000-meters, and 10,000-meters races.  Athletes over the years have been proficient in either the shorter sprint type races or the longer grueling distances.  Occasionally, there have been skaters who could handle middle distances along with the sprints.  Some too, have been successful at both the middle and the longer ones.  Then there was Eric Heiden.  Not only did he compete in all distances, he won gold in each of them.  It was a truly amazing accomplishment.  Imagine Usain Bolt, or any sprinter for that matter, also winning gold in the 10,000 meters race.  It’s not ever done, and nobody even tries to do it.  It requires two completely different skill sets.

On February, 23 1980 the 21-year-old capped off his historic Olympics by breaking the world record in the 10,000 meters, with a time of 14:28:13.  His fifth individual gold in those Games.  The best part, is that he did this after oversleeping that morning and barely having time to eat a slice of bread.  And why?  He was up late the night before watching the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union.

The fame resulting from his performance never seemed to be comfortable for Eric.  He competed for the love of sport and for the challenge, rather than for the notoriety.  Heiden once said, “Heck, gold medals, what can you do with them?.  I’d rather get a nice warmup suit.  That’s something I can use.  eric-heiden-olympics-si-1Gold medals just sit there.  When I get old, maybe I could sell them if I need the money.”  Heiden retired from speed skating after that year’s world championships.  He passed on most endorsement deals thrown his way, or could’ve been as well known as other Olympic stars such as Bruce Jenner, Mary Lou Retton or Michael Phelps.  He had aspirations in other pursuits.

For a quick challenge he went to Oslo, Norway to play part of the season with the Manglerud Star ice hockey team.  No big deal right?

Conquering that goal, Heiden then set his sights on a professional cycling career.  At first he tried track cycling, but was not too successful.  A switch to road racing proved to be a better fit for Eric.  In 1985 he won the first U.S. professional cycling championship.  He went on to compete in the Tour de France in 1986.  Unfortunately, his experience there ended in a horrific crash on a downhill stretch.  The resulting concussion left him unable to finish the event.

With that, Mr. Heiden decided to do his best Moonlight Graham impression….better make that Dr. Heiden.  Following in his father’s footsteps, Eric became an orthopedic surgeon.  He earned his medical degree from Stanford and now specializes in knee and shoulder injuries.  He has been the team physician for the Sacramento Kings of the NBA and works with the U.S. speedskating and cycling teams.  In fact, at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, he helped a speed skater who had quickly become my second favorite in the sport.  When Apolo Ohno collided with other skaters and fell while finishing the 1,000-meter short-track event, he sustained a gash in his leg that required stitches.  Heiden was happy to oblige.

If that wasn’t enough to keep the good doctor busy,  he also wrote a book.  In 2008, Heiden and Dr. Massimo Testa published Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Exercise Bible, for a Leaner, Healthier Body in Just 12 Weeks, discussing exercise science and programs.  A true renaissance man.

Ask anyone what was the greatest moment of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, and the answer will always be USA Hockey.  That’s as it should be, of course.  It doesn’t make what Eric Heiden did any less impressive, and probably would be similarly revered if it had happened any other year.  Does Eric mind playing second fiddle to Miracle on Ice?  With his penchant for privacy and appreciation for sport, I have to think he wouldn’t have it any other way.


Eric Heiden skating photo courtesy: AFP PHOTO (Photo credit AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

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