The odds are stacked fairly heavily against one family's producing two world champions, especially two that reign simultaneously, like speed skaters Eric and Beth Heiden. Not that there is much surface resemblance.
Eric, 20, a pre-med student at the University of Wisconsin, slouches when he stands, perhaps reflecting years of crouching in a skating stance. Beth, 19, a sophomore majoring in civil engineering at Wisconsin, wouldn't dream of slouching. At 5'2", a foot short of brother Eric, she needs every inch she can rally. Eric's eyes are brown and his hair is dark and wavy. Beth's eyes are green and her dark blonde hair hangs straight, topping a 99-pound frame tiresomely referred to as pint-sized.
Eric's cheeks, while not gaunt, are definitely hollow—he once stuffed them with 52 dried prunes, 26 to a side. Beth's cheeks are right out of Disney's Chip 'n' Dale. Off the ice, he is soft-spoken and gentlemanly; she is a bubbly sprite, full of the devil. But they are far more akin than these differences would indicate. Inside, they burn to win.
On Feb. 4, at The Hague, Beth took the world all-round title, winning all four events at distances from 500 to 3,000 meters. On Feb. 11 in Oslo, Eric swept to the world overall title for the third straight year, winning all four men's events—500, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000—as well as setting a world record for total points. And then, since speed skating tends to repeat itself, they both turned up in Inzell, West Germany, last weekend for the world sprint championships.
February 26, 1979
Eric had won the men's sprint title the last two years. In 1978 Beth won the world junior all-round and finished second in the women's sprints at Lake Placid to Lubov Sadchikova of the Soviet Union. In Inzell Beth handled Sadchikova with no problem. Unfortunately, however, she had to contend with one of her own teammates. Leah Poulos Mueller, the silver medalist in the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics, came out of an 18-month layoff to win the world sprint title for the second time.
The championships are spread over two days, with a 500- and a 1,000-meter race each day. Mueller won both 500s and finished fourth and fifth in the 1,000s. She had been training in Inzell for six weeks with her husband and teammate, Peter Mueller. A sprint specialist, she had not competed in the women's world meet at The Hague. "I was wondering how good Beth was," Mueller said afterward. "I expected to beat her in the 500. I'm a technique skater and she's more of a strength skater. But it's the unknown you're afraid of."
As it turned out, strength skater Beth won both 1,000s, lowering her personal best by half a second on Sunday with a 1:25.61. Added to a seventh and fifth in the 500s, the result produced a silver medal.
But Beth was already the all-round champion, and anything won at the sprints was so much frosting. She had been saying all week that she would be thrilled just to get a medal, protesting that she was not a sprinter and had no business being the favorite, world champion or not. Besides, there was Eric to carry on the family honor and all that. Which, sure as hometown Madison is the capital of Wisconsin, he did.
Eric Heiden simply does not lose any more in world competition, regardless of distance, as he proved at Inzell by annihilating the field in both the 500 and 1,000. On Saturday, he tied his own world record in the 1,000 with a 1:14.99, despite stumbling and having to steady himself with his left hand to keep from falling. His 1,000 on Sunday, which was raced in a driving snowstorm, was .08 of a second slower; his winning times in the 500 were 38.17 and 38.23.
The races at Inzell produced Eric's eighth world title in eight tries in the last three years—two juniors, three seniors and three sprints. He has become the Secretariat of speed skating, winning his races by unheard-of margins. When Heiden was at the world meet in Oslo, where speed skating is a mania, he appeared on the front pages every day. He was hustled about like a rock star, and had to sneak out through hotel garages to avoid his admirers. U.S. Ambassador Louis Lerner hopped on the bandwagon by appointing Heiden honorary sports ambassador to Norway.
Despite all the hoopla and pressure, Eric took the 500, 1,500 and 5,000. Then, having locked up his third straight all-round title, he went all out in the 10,000 and lopped seven seconds off the stadium record, skating the grueling 6¼ miles in 14:43.11 to finish a whopping 15.64 seconds ahead of the second-place racer. In a scoring system where a difference of one point is something of a rout, Heiden finished 4.8 points up on Jan-Egil Storholt of Norway. A total of 4.2 points separated second from 15th place. Eric is that far ahead of the rest of the world.
Heiden's fellow competitors are the first to admit it. In Inzell, after Eric tied his 1,000 world record, Peter Mueller could only laugh. Mueller, who won the gold medal at the distance in the 1976 Olympics, finished fourth at Inzell. "There's no one here he has to worry about," Mueller said. "Everybody else goes for second and third and so on. But I'd like to get closer than three seconds. Maybe a second and a half, or so."
The European skaters are no less awed, cheerfully raising Eric's hand after every race and posing admiringly for pictures with him. In fact, there is only one group that does not seem to consider Eric's success well-deserved. "The European skaters aren't as concerned about me as their coaches are," Eric says. "If they don't have a winning season, they get fired." And the person all these countries would like to hire to replace them is the Heiden family coach, Dianne Holum, the only woman coach of world-class speed skaters. Holum was a great skater in her own right, winning silver and bronze medals in the 1968 Olympics and a gold and a silver in 1972. That was the year she moved from Northbrook, Ill. to Madison, where Beth and Eric Heiden were members of the local speed-skating club.
Holum put the Heidens on a training program which she devised. It stressed dry-land training of all varieties—bicycling, weight lifting and a series of exercises meant to imitate proper skating technique—including the dread duckwalk. "They trained hard and made a big jump the first year," Holum says. "But that second year when they didn't make that big jump again, they had to learn patience. That was the big thing. A lot of the kids quit, but Beth and Eric stayed with it, even when they couldn't see the improvement."
A technique the Heidens use that is unique to the U.S. team is "special turn training." One day at their University of Wisconsin training facilities, Holum discovered the miracle of surgical tubing. She tied one end of a length of tubing around Eric's waist, then, holding the other end, she leaned back herself. Now Eric, while duckwalking in a skater's stance, could lean out as though negotiating an imaginary turn.
"It's hard to imitate turning on dry land, but a turn is half the race," Holum says. "That's where Eric is so good. Because of centrifugal force, you can build up speed on the turns that you can't on the straightaways. We do a lot of speed change work, too. You have to be able to work into the wind and relax when it's at your back. That's how Beth won in Holland, where it was awfully windy."
Beth is the sort of girl to which clichès like "bright as a button" and "sharp as a tack" gravitate. But if she is all puppy on the outside, tucked away somewhere inside is a tiger. "Other people may be built better," says Holum, "and may be stronger, too. But Beth is more efficient. And she is a fighter. She feels that she has to make up for her size. She never understood her potential before. I'd tell her she could do a 4:40 in the 3,000, and she'd argue, 'No way I can do that.' But after she won the 500 at the world meet she decided, 'Hey, I want to win this thing.' It all had to come from within her."
Many of the top women sprinters had skipped the world championships because they do not excel at the longer races. So it was that Beth shocked both the field and herself by winning the 500 in 44.49 and the 1,500 in 2:13.79 on the first day at The Hague. With her superior conditioning, she found the strong wind an advantage. "I would have been happy to be in the top three," she said later, "but Dianne thought I could win it all. And then I heard from somebody that Eric also thought I could win. That meant a lot to me."
"I guess I was afraid to find my potential," she said. "I'll still argue if Dianne gives me a time to shoot for that I don't think I can make. But she's usually right."
Despite skating her best 500 of the year, Beth was trailing two East Germans, Christa Rothenburger and Sylvia Albrecht, by substantial margins going into the final 1,000 at Inzell on Sunday. Although Mueller was too far ahead to catch, Holum asked Beth to go for a 1:25, a full second under her previous best for the distance. And in the snowstorm, to boot. This is what Holum figured it would take to catch—and hold off—the East Germans.
"Before the race, I didn't think I could do it," Beth said later. "I had to beat one of the East Germans by 1.1 seconds and the other one by .6 of a second. Going into the last turn, I was telling myself, 'Go hard, go hard!' " She was clocked in 1:25.61.
But the East Germans still had a chance to beat her, and they were ahead of the pace until the final 100 meters, then both fell short. "That final 100 is so important," said Holum. "That's where an all-rounder like Beth has the advantage over the sprint specialists."
Eric has finished competing for the year, but Beth, because she is 19, will defend her junior world title next week in Grenoble. Both Heidens will take six weeks off this spring, then resume training in April for the Olympics. If February of 1980 is as extraordinary a month for the Heidens as was February of 1979, they'll be loaded down with gold.