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Still Handy with Blades Not that long ago self-effacing surgeon Eric Heiden was an Olympic hero

Nov. 16, 1998
Nov. 16, 1998

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Nov. 16, 1998

Faces In The Crowd

Still Handy with Blades Not that long ago self-effacing surgeon Eric Heiden was an Olympic hero

Immediately after Eric Heiden established the gold standard at the
1980 Winter Olympics, winning as many first-place medals as any
U.S. winter team since 1932, he was a troubled soul. Man, I'm
never going to be in this kind of shape again in my life, the
21-year-old speed skater lamented to himself as he crossed the
finish line in the 10,000 meters, the fifth and last event he won
at Lake Placid. It's all downhill from here.

This is an article from the Nov. 16, 1998 issue

Talk about prescience. Heiden's descent since his Olympic
triumphs has been precipitous. A slacker of epic dimensions, he
has frittered away the past 19 years, accomplishing little other
than finishing undergraduate studies at Stanford, becoming a
world-class cyclist, graduating from Stanford Medical School and
becoming an orthopedic surgeon with a practice at UC Davis
Medical Center in Sacramento. Would someone cue up Springsteen's
Glory Days and tell Heiden to get on with his life already?

Seriously, just how detached is Heiden from Lake Placid? Not long
ago he set out in search of his gold medals. He realized that
four of them were at his parents' house in Wisconsin, but he
couldn't find the other one. It wasn't in any of the usual
repositories--under the coffee table, in the bottom of his sock
drawer or draped around the neck of a plastic cadaver he keeps in
his office. He had almost given up looking when the medal turned
up at the bottom of a closet. "I guess I had thrown it in there
awhile ago and forgotten about it," says Heiden with a shrug.
"The 1980 Games seem like a lifetime ago."

Not that the most decorated gold medalist in a single Winter
Olympics is totally divorced from big-time sports. He is on the
medical staff of Sacramento's two pro basketball teams, the NBA's
Kings and the WNBA's Monarchs. "People always say that hindsight
is 20/20, and having been an athlete, I have an idea what the
players are going through, the pressures they're under, and
what's going on mentally as they try to get back on their feet,"
says Heiden, who is also an assistant professor of arthroscopy
and sports medicine at Cal-Davis. "A lot of the athletes today,
though, don't remember the 1980 Olympics, and they don't know me
as anyone other than Dr. Heiden."

Why should they? Heiden has as much use for fame as Californians
have for speed skates. He emerged from the Olympics as a Madison
Avenue paradigm, a charismatic, square-jawed icon from Middle
America; but not for nothing does he pronounce his surname
Hidin'. He politely declined most endorsement offers, accepting
only enough money to pay for his college tuition. He turned down
easy bucks on the rubber-chicken circuit--"I'm 21 years old," he
reasoned. "What do I have to tell anyone?" He even eschewed the
rite of passage of having his face plastered on a Wheaties box.

Today, his boyish looks tempered by salt-and-pepper hair, Heiden
is affable but continues to maintain a low profile. He has so
little inclination to trade on his past that colleagues can
hardly recall a time that the Olympics came up in conversation
with him. "My privacy, my anonymity have always been so
important," says Heiden. "I love that I can go out in public and
only now and then does my face ring a bell for people."

His Olympic feat, however, remains indelible. Propelled by
outsized thighs, Heiden not only won the gold medal but also
broke the Olympic record in each of the five events he entered,
from the 500-meter sprint to the excruciating 10,000-meter race.
"What Eric did is comparable to a guy winning everything from the
400 meters to the 10,000 meters in track," said U.S. marathon
star Bill Rodgers. "There may be a few guys who can do both the
5,000 and the 10,000, but, equating it to running, Eric has done
the impossible." Consider that speed skater Bonnie Blair, who won
five gold medals in three Olympics, never attempted a race longer
than 1,500 meters.

After his triumphs at Lake Placid, Heiden transferred from
Wisconsin, where he also had been a varsity soccer player, to
Stanford. In California he turned to bicycling to stay in shape.
Riding upwards of 100 miles at a time, applying the same
persistence and focus that he had devoted to skating, Heiden soon
became one of the country's top cyclists, winning the U.S.
Professional Championship in 1985. The next year, however, while
racing for the 7-Eleven team in the Tour de France, he suffered
the only serious injury of his career. During an early stage he
took off a poorly ventilated, uncomfortable helmet and placed it
on his handlebars. "A few minutes later I fell off the bike, got
a concussion, and there was blood coming out of my head," he
recalls. "That pretty much ended my cycling career."

He enrolled in medical school, determined to become an orthopedic
surgeon like his father, Jack, who practices in Madison, Wis.
After finishing his residency at Cal-Davis in 1996, Eric spent a
year at a sports medicine clinic in Birmingham, and then returned
to Davis. While his schedule has eased since his residency, when
he routinely worked 24-hour shifts, he still might perform four
or five operations in a given day. "Surgery is really a lot like
sports," he says. "There's a lot of preparation. The surgery
itself takes maximum concentration and maximum effort, but the
competition is with yourself."

This perspective attracts injured world-class athletes to
Heiden's operating table. Last summer Ruthie Bolton-Holifield,
the star guard for the Monarchs, was in the market for a surgeon
after tearing the ACL in her left knee. "I chose Dr. Heiden
because just in talking to him for about 10 or 15 minutes, I
could tell he knew what I was going through," says
Bolton-Holifield. "He did a great job, and since the surgery he's
stayed in close contact because he knows athletes have a tendency
to rush back too soon. He's truly modest, but he's an amazing
guy."

Heiden's schedule keeps him almost exclusively in Sacramento. If
he's lucky, he makes it back to Cheesehead country to visit his
parents once a year. His sister Beth, who won a bronze medal in
the 3,000 meters at the 1980 Games, is a mother of three in
northern Michigan.

Now that he's 40, his thighs are slightly smaller than Earl
Campbell's, but the tributaries of veins that adorn his arms
leave little doubt that the man is still a serious athlete. He
stopped in-line skating the three miles to work from his modest
house in Sacramento's River Park neighborhood; a broken wrist
would have amounted to occupational suicide. But he stays in
shape cycling or running along the American River, which abuts
his backyard, and working out in a small gym in his house. He
also plays in a recreational hockey league at a rink in
Sacramento. "I'm not the best stickhandler, but I might be the
best skater out there," he says without a trace of irony. "At
this point in my life, I'm really more concerned with being the
best doctor I can be and being respected by my peers, being known
for more than skating a couple of laps around a rink faster than
anyone else."

Whatever free time he has he spends with his wife, Karen, who's
in her final year of an orthopedic residency at Davis. With some
reluctance, Eric confesses that like any doctor worth his
stethoscope, he has cultivated a passion for golf. "I guess I'm
officially an old man," he says sheepishly. "I probably play once
a week, and my handicap is 15, but I'm getting better."

Given his track record, oval and otherwise, is there any doubt
that in a decade he'll be ready for the Senior PGA tour?

COLOR PHOTO: GERRY GROPP [Eric Heiden with X-rays]COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN Heiden won gold and set Olympic marks in all five of his Lake Placid races. [Eric Heiden skating at 1980 Olymbic Games]
"A lot of the athletes today don't know me as anyone other than
Dr. Heiden."