By Charlie Snyder // usolympicteam.com // February 17, 2005
In 1980, Eric Heiden did something no Olympian — man, woman, U.S., foreign, summer or winter – has ever done before or since. He won five individual gold medals at one Olympic Games in speedskating in events as diverse as the 500-meter sprint to the 10,000-meter endurance challenge.
In celebrating the 25th anniversary of this amazing physical accomplishment, Heiden sat down with usolympicteam.com and told us the great story about oversleeping and nearly missing his final race, where he got those tree-trunk legs and what he thinks about today’s Olympic champions, Apolo Anton Ohno and Michael Phelps.
Q1: How did you do that … winning the 500 all the way up to the 10,000 … it almost seems impossible?
ERIC HEIDEN: “Well, did a lot of things. One, I had a good coach. Dianne Holum was my coach for seven years and she had a firm understanding of skating and the physiology involved. We trained for all the distances. I mean you got to thank your parents for giving you the right genes. You got to get lucky because it lasts for a week and a lot of things can happen in a week.”
Q2: Now that you are a doctor, are you learning things about yourself that made you a little bit different?
ERIC HEIDEN: “One is, like I said, its genetics. You got to be born with the right tools. Secondly, you got to have the right frame of mind. There are a lot of people with the right tools but just don’t have the drive. I had the drive to pursue speedskating and I found a sport that I was good at. If I’d got into cycling, I would just be another has been.”
(Editor’s Note: In 1985, Heiden became a national champion in cycling and competed in the 1986 Tour de France.)
Q3: Where did those legs come from?
ERIC HEIDEN: “With a lot of training. We put in a lot of hours. It’s a lot of dedication and time.”
Q4: What was one of your favorite leg workout routines?
ERIC HEIDEN: “When I was skating, there was ice only for a really short period of time. So we would have to do a lot of other cross training type things. I’d enjoyed cycling very much that is why I got into cycling. We used to lift weights a couple of times a week, we did a lot of running. I enjoyed the variety. All those things I enjoyed doing. I certainly wouldn’t want to do one all the time, but to have the variety and the camaraderie with my teammates; it was a lot of fun. We did a lot of squats, step-ups. We never did a lot of weights, but a lot of repetitions. The most I would use doing squats was 300 pounds. That was it.
Q5: Are there any specific moments that are frozen in your mind from 1980?
ERIC HEIDEN: “One thing is having skated five of the best races I’ve probably could have skated. It was nice to peak at the right time and to do it in an important time in somebody’s career. When you think of individual races, I think it is the 10,000-meters. It’s a race that I excelled. If you wanted to be considered a good skater by your peers, it was a race that you had to do well at. And to walk away from Lake Placid with a gold medal and Olympic and world record was something that I remember very fondly.”
Q5: You overslept the night before the 10,000, tell us that story?
ERIC HEIDEN: “The night before, U.S. played Russia in hockey and I’m an avid hockey fan. A couple of the guys on the team, I grew up playing hockey with (Mark Johnson and Bobby Suter from Madison, Wis.) and I tried to make a point in seeing all the games. I think I missed one of them otherwise I saw the rest. We got to see Russia/USA hockey game and walked out of there with a big smile on our face. Yes, I was certainly fatigued from the races, but I think staying up late watching that game also caught up with me in the end.”
Q6: You got up two hours before the race?
ERIC HEIDEN: “Yeah, I was probably about two hours before. I would want to get to the rink two hours before and I remember Dianne knocking on my door saying ‘What are you doing?’ So my pre-race routine was definitely shortened.
Q7: And your breakfast was just three slices of bread … ?
ERIC HEIDEN: “I ran to the cafeteria, grabbed some bread and jumped into the car and off we went. (Was it at least whole grain?) Yes, whole grain bread.”
Q8: That just seems so funny in today’s world of energy bars. Everyone has to eat a specific bar, drink before and after every race. I would think nutrition would be important, especially for the 10,000?
ERIC HEIDEN: “It’s important to get good nutrition the night before. So shoot, I had a good dinner. You don’t really want to load up a whole lot, probably anything more than four hours before the race. I needed something to make me feel full, but I certainly didn’t want it to make me feel stuffed. The one thing that I was very adamant about was my pre-race routine, which meant I had to be at the rink two hours before. I had A, B and C down to Z that I did in order and things were kind of thrown for a loop that morning.”
Q9: Tell me more about your pre-race rituals?
ERIC HEIDEN: “I think it was pretty typical routine. Most athletes like to say they have a routine. For me it was get to the rink early. I’d go for a 15 to 20 minute jog. I would then get on the ice for a good half an hour. It would then take me at least a half an hour to 45 minutes to sharpen my skates. Then you probably got 30 to 45 minutes before your going to race. Then it was back to relaxing and really getting focused on the race, a little bit of stretching. Then going out on the ice usually about 15 minutes before and certain things I would do for the different races, aspects that you run through your mind. And that was pretty much my routine.”
Q10: Did you ever get nervous before your races in 1980?
ERIC HEIDEN: “Yeah. It wasn’t as though I was nervous about winning or losing it was I would get nervous about the fact that I was…every time you race, you’re racing against the clock and you got to be able to dig deep and I got nervous about how much suffering and how much it was going to hurt during the race.”
Q11: How did you get over it?
ERIC HEIDEN: “From confidence from training. I trained hard and put in the time and effort. I didn’t cut any corners. To stay on focus, you think positive thoughts. Let them shoot the gun.”
Q13: Did you see hockey’s gold medal game?
ERIC HEIDEN: “I did go to the gold medal game. I got to hang out up near the commentary booth where Al Michaels and Ken Dryden and basically got to hear their commentary as the game was going on. Had one of the best seats in the house.”
Q14: Did you go on the town?
ERIC HEIDEN: “Very little. Immediately after the Olympics, I was pretty fatigued. We had a party with the rest of the skaters in our trailer and then the next day we were off to see Jimmy Carter. And then we had the World Championships the next weekend, so not a lot of chance to catch up.
Q15: Now you travel with the long track speedskaters as a team physician. What’s that like?
ERIC HEIDEN: “What I do right now is very rewarding. I have a very close friendship with the skaters. Something that I think most people don’t appreciate and being on the staff allows me to go places that most people can’t go. I get to enjoy the event. I don’t have the pressure of competing and I get the best seat in the house.”
Q16: You were the team physician for the 2002 U.S. Speedskating Olympic Team …
ERIC HEIDEN: “It was gratifying to see results of the entire American team. I don’t think there has ever been a more successful speedskating team at the Olympics. To be apart of that was very nice.”
Q17: How’s today’s speedskating team looking?
ERIC HEIDEN: “The American team is very strong. I’m not sure that they will be able to live up what they did in Salt Lake City. I can tell you that the team and U.S. Speedskating are working very hard to give these guys the best opportunity to repeat what they did in Salt Lake. Right now, I think they have a very good chance of repeating what they did and maybe even doing a little better.”
Q16: What do you appreciate most in an athlete?
ERIC HEIDEN: “In general, I enjoy athletes who have a strong character who let their abilities speak for themselves. I’m not a big fan of those who are egotistical and so outspoken. So, as far as physical specimens, I do have a chance to work with some of what I would consider the best physical athletes in basketball players. Those guys are a unique combination, a big tall guy with coordination and strength. Cyclists, I work with a number of cyclists. They are great athletes; they are great aerobic athletes. If you ask them to hit a baseball or golf ball, they can’t do that.
Q17: What do you think of Apolo Anton Ohno?
ERIC HEIDEN: “Apolo is one of those athletes who has found the sport he can do very well at. Every once in awhile, you get a chance to find or see somebody who is head and shoulders better than anybody else and Apolo is one of those athletes. I would recommend anybody who gets a chance to see short track skating, make it a point to go out there when Apolo is skating because you won’t see anybody better.”
Q18: Did you follow the Michael Phelps’ phenomenon last summer in Athens?
ERIC HEIDEN: “Yes, I did. I consider him a very gracious champion. An outstanding individual when you think about what he did at the end giving one of his colleagues a chance to win a gold medal. Was something you probably won’t see many people do.”
Q19: Will we see another Eric Heiden performance again?
ERIC HEIDEN: “I don’t think because now the format of skating is something that it really pushes people into specialization. When you think about these single distances championships and these World Cup races, people can make a career out of skating one or two distances. When I was skating you had to participate in every thing. So I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Q20: Are you keeping in shape?
ERIC HEIDEN: “I’m waiting for a friend; we are going for a run. I try to get out two to tree times a week to do something aerobically, either running or riding a bike. Then I lift weights a couple of times a week.
This interview originally appeared on usolympicteam.com.
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