67° Good Afternoon
67° Good Afternoon

Heiden set the gold standard at Lake Placid

Even as he stepped on the ice for that final race in Lake Placid, looking unbeatable and with an unprecedented speedskating sweep in his grasp, Eric Heiden had those lingering doubts.

Would this be the day his thick legs failed him? Could he muster enough strength to win the most grueling race of all? The gun sounded. Heiden set off on 25 laps around the snowy outdoor track. Each time he passed the start-finish line, he felt stronger. And stronger. And when he started hearing the times, steadily coming in under world-record pace, he knew that fifth gold medal was his.

The rest of the 10,000 meters was one long victory lap, the perfect capper to one of the greatest feats in Olympic history.

"I remember sitting in the locker room listening to the times," Heiden told The Associated Press this week. "I don't know that anybody had set a world record, but they were good times. I knew I would have to put in a good effort. In those long races, you sort of get into a rhythm and hope you get 'the feeling.' Some days, you really feel good. Other days, for unknown reasons, you just don't have it."

Heiden had it that day, crossing the line one last time more than six seconds faster than the previous world record. He had it for every race during those magical nine days at a hamlet in upstate New York, becoming the first Olympian to win five individual gold medals at a single games.

Heiden won the 500 - basically an all-out sprint. He won the 10,000 - an ordeal of stamina and willpower. He won at all three distances in between - 1,000, 1,500 and 5,000.

While two athletes - Soviet gymnast Vitaly Scherbo and swimmer Michael Phelps - have matched Heiden's feat, that's done little to diminish the three-decades-old accomplishment of a guy still described by friends as nothing more than an aw-shucks Wisconsin cheesehead, who came with 27-inch thighs and a burning desire to be better than everyone else.

After finishing seventh and 19th in his two races at the 1976 Innsbruck Games, Heiden emerged at the sport's most dominant figure while still in his teens. He won the world sprint championship. He won the world all-around title. When it came time to make his plans for Lake Placid, he saw no reason why he shouldn't at least try to win gold in everything.

"Probably a year before the Olympics, I made the commitment to really try to compete in all five of 'em," Heiden said. "To be successful in all five, I thought that was a long shot. But I thought I had a good chance to win a medal in everything."

The most important race was probably his first, a 11/4-lap sprint where he seemed most vulnerable. He was paired in the 500 with defending Olympic champion and world-record holder Yevgeny Kulikov, but the Soviet skater slipped a bit on a turn and Heiden pulled away to win by 34-hundredths of a second, setting the first of five Olympic records.

"That set the tone," he said. "That really gave me a lot of confidence."

The next day, Heiden finished more than a second ahead of the field in the 5,000. After a couple of days off, he won the 1,000 by a dominant 1.5 seconds. Two days later, Heiden caught a rut in the ice but didn't fall, going on to win the 1,500 for gold medal No. 4.

Finally, on Feb. 23, 1980, Heiden skated into Olympic history in the 10,000 by becoming the first skater ever to go under 141/2 minutes.

"I knew with probably about seven or eight laps to go," he remembered. "At that point, the majority of the race is behind you. I knew that I was getting a great time and the end was in sight."

Though the first race was the most important, the last one brought the biggest smile.

The sport has become more specialized, with few skaters even attempting more than two or three events. Shani Davis had a shot at becoming the first American since Heiden to skate in all five at the upcoming Vancouver Games but dropped the 10,000 - believing that training for the longest race might cost him gold in his two best events, the 1,000 and 1,500.

"I don't think it's going to happen again," Heiden said.

New York Sports