Mrs. Nancy Heiden was having a hard time of it. "You sure we haven't lost one yet?" she asked a friend before the start of the men's 5,000-meter race. "Are you sure? Eric sometimes forgets to tell me things." The friend was sure—and so was most of the rest of the country. Eric had one gold medal down and four to go.
Moments later, his mother was again agitated, covering her eyes so she couldn't see the huge electronic scoreboard at the north end of the speed skating oval in front of Lake Placid High School. "Oh, we've lost it," she was saying. "I know we've lost it. He's on too slow a time." After 1,400 meters, Eric trailed a Norwegian skater, Tom Erik Oxholm, by 4.47 seconds. "He'll never make it up. We've lost it."
The crowd thought otherwise. The heavy thudding of mittens sounded through the steady snowfall every time Heiden churned by in his mustard-gold uniform. "Come onnnnnnnn, Eric!"
At the halfway point the margin was slightly more than two seconds. On Heiden strode, 33 seconds a lap, cheered along by the crowd. At 3,800 meters he pulled even with Oxholm's time, and at 4,200 meters he led by a full second. Mittens thundered. Mrs. Heiden reopened her eyes. On he stroked, machine-like, his huge strides devouring the ice, his back straight and low. There was no one who could match his 34.68 in the final 400 meters, and he finished at 7:02.29, his second-best time ever for the 5,000, 3.3 seconds ahead of Oxholm, who won the bronze, and .99 of a second ahead of Norway's Kai Arne Stenshjemmet, who holds the world record in the 5,000.
February 25, 1980
Heiden had his second gold in as many days, and it was the second day in a row that he'd beaten a world-record holder in the record holder's specialty. "Eric's the only one of the good skaters who is going in every event," said his coach, Dianne Holum. "They're all specialists taking a crack at him."
In the 500-meter race on Friday, the first day of bright sunshine Lake Placid had had all week, Heiden had drawn the first pairing along with the Soviet Union's Yevgeny Kulikov. Because Kulikov was considered his chief rival in the sprints, it was a great draw for both of them—for once, they could more or less race each other, not the clock. After 100 meters, Kulikov led by .05—perhaps the length of a skate blade. On the turn, however, where Heiden excels, the Russian slipped slightly and fell behind. He passed Heiden again on the backstretch. In the last three strokes of the final turn, Heiden generated what he called a "sling-shot effect" and slipped by the Russian.
Eric said it was a relief to get the first one out of the way, but for all that the pressure seemed to bother him, he might as well have been in Lake Placid to study the effects of frostbitten thumbs on hitchhikers. Heiden simply will not be fazed. About the biggest change roommate Tom Plant had noticed in him since they arrived in Lake Placid was that during their morning runs, Heiden had admitted he needed to think about where to put his legs—one in front of the other—because they felt heavy and dead. "That was a good sign," Plant said. "That's a good kind of nervousness to have."
Unfortunately, Eric's sister, Beth, had a bad kind of nervousness. Racing in the women's 1,500 on Thursday morning, she seemed emotionally exhausted before taking her first stroke. "I saw her before the race," said Dr. Mike Woods, the seventh-place finisher in the men's 5,000, "and she looked like Frankenstein."
The 1,500 meters is one of Beth's best events, and Holum was hoping Heiden would get the U.S. team off to a flying start. Instead she left the Americans shaking their heads and wondering if they had all peaked too soon. Heiden got off to an excellent start, faster than any of the eventual medalists, and after 700 meters was on schedule for her planned time of 2:10. Then she petered out, losing nearly three seconds over the last 800 meters to the gold medalist, Annie Borckink, 28, of Holland, and finishing seventh with a 2:13.10.
Borckink's win surprised everyone—including herself. She had never before finished among the top three in an international competition. Further, the silver medalist, 18-year-old Ria Visser, was also from Holland, leading the judges to check the Dutch women's skate blades for tiny windmills.
It was a crushing start for the U.S. women. Leah Poulos Mueller, 28, a veteran of two Olympics, who had the 500-meter sprint coming up the next day, said, "I don't know if the letdown stage has really hit yet. Everyone is just in awe. Nobody thought that the Dutch girls would come in one-two, least of all themselves. But things like that happen in the Olympics." She stopped then and looked around, the snow falling lightly on her maroon cap. "Where the hell are the buses?"
Mueller's chief competition in the 500 was Karin Enke, a fresh-faced, 18-year-old East German, who had burst into prominence the week before during the world sprint championships in West Allis, Wis., which she won. Enke had been a figure skater until an accident a couple of years ago forced her to have an operation on her arm and miss months of training. She then switched to speed skating, a decision she has no cause to regret, and competing in the second pair, Enke had a 41.78. Heiden was in the third pairing, but the 500 is her worst event. Again she finished seventh.
In the fourth pairing Mueller and the East German, Cornelia Jacob, she was skating with were called for two false starts apiece; a third would have disqualified the skater who committed it, so at the gun Mueller was sitting back. She finished at 42.26, good for second place.
On Sunday, which broke clear and cold and with a wind that would pick up as the day wore on, the women were back for the 1,000, an event in which Mueller had won the silver at Innsbruck four years ago. She was paired with Natalia Petruseva of the Soviet Union, the bronze-medal winner in Friday's 500, while Heiden would skate against Enke. Mueller and Petruseva were the day's second pairing, and this time there were no false starts. The two women raced the first 20 meters stride for stride, but the Russian, who had dethroned Heiden in the 1980 world championships, began to edge ahead. Mueller picked up some ground in the final turn, but Petruseva pulled away to win by 40 feet. Mueller took the silver medal—her third, including Innsbruck, which gives her the biggest collection of silvers ever accumulated by an American in the Winter Olympics. "I like silver," she said gamely.
The Enke-Heiden duel was won by the East German, but by the time they were up, in the sixth pairing, the wind had risen and the ice had slowed. Heiden's 1:27.01 was good for fifth place, with Enke fourth and her East German teammate, Silvia Albrecht, getting the bronze.
In the meantime Eric Heiden, old Mr. Jitters, was the talk of the town as everyone waited to see if he could continue his unprecedented sweep of the men's events. His biggest challenge could come Saturday in the grueling 10,000. After two weeks of racing, interviewing, and awards ceremonies—not to mention the world sprint championships the week before the Olympics began—it will be a wonder if he can still lace up his skates for the 10. Right now it's all he can do to keep track of what day it is and how many golds remain. When asked after the 5,000 what he would do the next day, he said, "Huh? Tomorrow? What's today? Saturday? That's right. What's next? The 1,000? Oh, that's right. I guess I'll start thinking about the 1,000."
So it was two down, Ma, three to go. He hadn't forgotten to tell you a thing.