The night before the end of The Great Whoopee—as Eric Heiden privately called the folderol attending his quest for five speed-skating gold medals—there was the Golden Boy himself, enjoying a little R & R before his climactic 10,000-meter race by screaming his lungs out at the U.S.-Soviet hockey game. "He went nuts," said his coach, Dianne Holum, some 15 hours later. "That game would have psyched anyone up. He left there thinking he could conquer the world."
This is an article from the March 3, 1980 issue
In those 15 hours Heiden had overslept, missed his customary breakfast of three bowls of Kellogg's Corn Flakes and won his fifth gold—a Winter Olympic record. Not since Secretariat obliterated the 1973 Belmont field by 31 lengths had a champion completed a sweep with such decisiveness. Skating the 25-lap, 6.2-mile race in 14:28.13, Heiden had sliced 6.20 seconds off the world record and beaten his closest rival, Piet Kleine of the Netherlands, by 7.90 seconds—the equivalent of 100 meters. In a sport of benumbing repetition, Heiden, the greatest speed skater in history, had managed to add an element of surprise by making his final triumph such a runaway.
And, of course, in the process he had intensified The Great Whoopee. Heiden borrowed the phrase from John Aristotle Phillips, the fellow who, as an undergraduate at Princeton, designed an atomic bomb a few years ago. Phillips dubbed the accompanying fuss made by various government agencies and the media The Great American Whoopee, and while five Olympic speed-skating gold medals might not have the earth-shattering consequences of The Bomb, one would never know it from all the attention Heiden is getting these days. Seeing a bevy of New York State troopers lead Heiden through the admiring throng following the ceremony at which he had received his gold for the 1,500 meters, the driver of the LPOOC van that would transport Heiden from the scene said, "It looked like he was a criminal and they were hauling him away."
Inside the van, literally taking a back seat to America's reluctant hero, were former Montreal Canadien goaltender Ken Dryden; Heiden's sister, Beth; their agent, Art Kaminsky, easily the most unpopular man in Lake Placid because his sole purpose, it seemed, was to turn down photo sessions and interviews; and Heiden's Norwegian girl friend, Cecelie, whose own two hands had knitted the rainbow-colored stocking cap that Eric wore throughout the Games. Cameras were shoved against the windows of the van and flashcubes popped blindingly, forcing Heiden to shade his eyes. "The Great Whoopee," he said with a tolerant smile. "It's kind of a drag."
Heiden's gold medals were an achievement that crossed political boundaries. The same day that the Soviets sent a delegation to extract Holum's promise to ask Eric to skate later this year in Medeo, the U.S.S.R.'s high-altitude, high-speed rink, a Wisconsin politician was putting the wheels in motion to have the name of the West Allis Rink, where the American team trains, changed to the Heiden Rink—a suggestion that met with a cool response from other U.S. speed skaters. One of the few audiences Kaminsky granted was to Jimmy Carter, who invited Eric, along with other U.S. Olympians, to lunch on Monday. "I'd like to see the President," Heiden said. "I've never been to Washington before. It's something to do."
Except for a Harry Chapin concert at the Olympic Village and his two pieces of raisin bread each morning, the only things Heiden seemed to enjoy about Lake Placid were the races themselves. "It's fun to get dizzy," he explained at his sixth press conference of the Olympics, an event that he gladly would have foregone in favor of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was showing back in the Village. In a more serious moment—and it seemed there were far too many of them over the two weeks—he gave as good a definition of speed skating as one is likely to find: "It's a clean sport. There is no one else to blame; no one to rely on. You just have a pair of skates."
Which in Heiden's case is probably unfair advantage. For sporting purposes, he probably should perform with one ice skate and one moon boot. When Levi's was outfitting the American team before the opening ceremonies, the only pair of pants that would fit over Heiden's 29-inch thighs had a 38-inch waist, which is six inches bigger than he needs. "It's not exciting to be skating now," said Frode R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánning, the Norwegian bronze medalist in the 1,000. "The medals are delivered before the race." Asked how Heiden could be so great at all five distances, R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánning smiled and said, "That's what I want to know."
As it turned out, last Tuesday's 1,000 was probably Heiden's easiest race, despite the fact that he found it the most difficult to get up for, coming, as it did, halfway through the men's program. "The secret of the 1,000 is to open up as fast as possible in the first 200 meters," Heiden explained before the race. Paired with Canada's Gaetan Boucher, the eventual silver medalist, Heiden was clocked in 17.30 for the first 200 meters, fastest in the field, and went on to win by a second and a half. In a sport in which victory is usually obtained by hundredths of seconds, it was a truly Heidenian margin—second and ninth places were separated by only 1.28 seconds. "He'll probably win the 1,500 as easily as the 1,000," R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánning then predicted. "A lot of us are going to keep on skating next year because Eric is giving up."
R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánning was not far wrong. Two days later Heiden won the 1,500 by 1.37 seconds, precisely the margin that separated second place from seventh. And he very nearly fell down. Coming around the turn at the 600-meter mark, his inside skate broke through a rut in the ice, and he had to touch his left hand to the ice to keep from falling. "A mishap like that would have knocked another skater from first to fifth," Holum said. "Eric just kept going like nothing happened."
Which is how he was trying to live his life as The Great Whoopee raged about him. The day before the 10,000 he ordered Kaminsky to "shine" (cancel) all interviews so he could rest up for the hockey game that evening, though he did find time to pose for the inevitable five-gold-medals poster. Meanwhile, a representative of the Ice Follies was madly searching out Kaminsky, and University of Wisconsin Hockey Coach Bob Johnson—a family friend from Madison—was trying to present Heiden with a scholarship offer to play for the Badgers. The world was Heiden's oyster. After specifying his preferred brand of cornflakes at a press conference, he was asked if he'd been getting calls from the Kellogg folks. "I don't know," he said. "We don't have a phone in our trailer." The next day he covered his endorsement tracks. Asked why he was a great skater, Heiden jennered, "I just ate my Wheaties."
In stark contrast to the burlesque surrounding Eric was the Olympics his sister, Beth, endured. It had started, of course, two weeks ago, when little Beth, as she became known, finished seventh, seventh, and fifth in the women's 1,500, 500 and 1,000. Last Wednesday she had her final chance for a medal, in the 3,000. Paired with Bj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árg Eva Jensen of Norway, Heiden pushed her rival to within 1.13 seconds of the world record and the gold. Sabine Becker of East Germany, skating a personal best by an astounding 10 seconds, got the silver medal, while Heiden got the bronze.
But there was nothing very upbeat about winning the medal. There had been speculation that Heiden was overtrained, speculation that her ankle was bothering her, and rumors that she was jealous of her brother. She said nothing—to friends, family or coach. Driving to the ceremony at which Beth would receive her bronze, Holum said, "She's kept a lot of stuff inside her. Maybe if she had talked about it.... But she's young."
Heiden did, however, have some choice emotional words for the press, blaming it for applying undue pressure on her and her family. Afterward she broke into tears, and for any who saw it, the image of Heiden leaving the auditorium with her face pressed into the shoulder of Terry McDermott, a 1964 U.S. speed-skating gold medalist, with Kaminsky trotting along behind, will remain one of the haunting moments of these Games. "Life goes on," a family friend said later. "She'll probably go back to Madison and become a civil engineer."
Meanwhile Eric Heiden's life has become one of endless possibility—ranging from the short-term prospect of a celebratory skate down the luge run to his long-range goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. Then again, Mark Spitz wanted to become a dentist. The Great Whoopee has a way of changing one's perspective. But there is time for all that. For now, it was a torchbearer at one of the medal ceremonies on Mirror Lake who said it best. Just before the start of the proceedings, as green laser beams cut across the night sky and a motorized hang-glider left a trail of sparks, the young man ran up to Heiden and said, "We're sure glad to be standing up for the American national anthem for once."
For once—times five.