Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Eric Heiden: Speed Skating Superstar

Posted on February 11, 2014 by Dean Hybl

The February Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month was the individual star of the Winter Olympics best remembered for the performance of one team.

During the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, 21-year-old Eric Heiden completely dominated the men’s speed skating events winning all five gold medals.

While for many the lasting memory of the 1980 Winter Olympics is the surprising U.S. Olympic Hockey team, at the time much of the publicity was focused around Heiden and his quest to become the first Winter Olympian to win five gold medals in a single Olympics.

Already a world champion and record holder entering his first Olympics, Heiden set four Olympic records and one world record to earn his place in Olympic history.

What was most impressive is that he was able to transition from winning the 500 meter sprint to winning (in a world record time) the 10,000 meter distance skate. He also claimed the 1,000 meters, 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters.

Another interesting story around Heiden at the time was that his sister, Beth, was also competing as a speed skater for the United States. Though also an accomplished speed skater, Beth was hampered by an ankle injury during the Olympics and claimed “only” one bronze medal.

However, her brother had more than enough medals to go around.

After the Olympics, both Heiden’s switched their focus from speed skating to cycling. Eric failed in his bid to make the 1980 Summer Olympics as a cyclist, but did eventually compete in the 1986 Tour de France.

Following his athletic career, Heiden earned both undergraduate and M.D. degrees from Stanford University. He completed his orthopedic residency at U.C. Davis and has been in practice for nearly 20 years. He has served as the team physician for the U.S. Speed Skating Team and currently has an orthopedic practice in Utah.

In 2002 he was part of a bit of a controversy when he was among several U.S. gold medal winners invited to participate in the opening ceremonies at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, but refused to attend when the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team, rather than Heiden, was chosen to light the Olympic flame.

Heiden remains the only Winter Olympian to win five gold medals in a single Olympics.

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