Eric Heiden 25: Achieving the impossible

By Charlie Snyder // // February 17, 2005

In 1980, Eric Heiden was one of the lucky ones; he got to witness the ‘Miracle on Ice’ live and in person in Lake Placid. He was so excited that he overslept the next morning and nearly missed his final event at the speedskating oval, but he made it in time to win his fifth individual Olympic gold medal, a feat many considered to be the greatest Olympic performance in history.

Here’s what the man with the tree-trunk legs did in an eight-day period, 25 years ago this week. He won the 500, 1,000, 1,500, 5,000, and 10,000-meters with five Olympic records and one world record, defeating Olympic champions and world record-holders in three of the five races. No other Olympian has ever won five individual gold medals in one Olympic Games.

“I have always felt that it is the single greatest feat in the history of sports,” said Dan Jansen, a speedskating legend in his own right, on Heiden’s performance in Lake Placid.

What follows is an appreciation of a golden sports performance of the ages on its silver anniversary from Heiden’s 1980 teammates, like speedskater and sister Beth Heiden, hockey’s Rob McClanahan, and alpine legend Phil Mahre; fellow speedskating legends, Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen; and current skating stars, Apolo Anton Ohno, Casey FitzRandolph and Jennifer Rodriguez.

>>> What was a favorite memory growing up with Eric Heiden as your brother?

”I guess it would be skating on Lake Mendota, which is a big lake in the city of Madison where we grew up. It would snow a lot during winter and you’d have to really work to keep the ice good for skating in front of your house. There were couple of families who lived on the lake that maintained real nice ovals for speedskating and we would skate from one of them to the other. That was always kind of fun.” – Beth Heiden

>>> What do you remember about Eric’s performance in 1980?

“I watched every one of Eric Heiden’s races. The guy was phenomenal. He was to speedskating what Soviets were to hockey. He dominated every single event and to do what he accomplished was nothing less than phenomenal. There’s a guy who prepared. He was in better condition than anybody else and he was ready for everything.” – Rob McClanahan

“To be brutally honest, I don’t remember a thing!  I was born in 1982. However I have known of Eric’s incredible skating since I was involved in sports. The first thing that comes to mind is “achieving the impossible.” – Apolo Anton Ohno

“I remember being in my TV room watching his races and thinking to myself it would be cool to go to the Olympics. I never dreamed I would of had the success I did, or even be mentioned in the same breath as Eric Heiden, but like I have said before he won his five golds in one week, it took me three Olympics and six years.” – Bonnie Blair

“I don’t remember much.  I was only 4.  But I do remember hearing his name over and over as I was growing up.” – Jennifer Rodriguez

“I remember watching every race on television. I was a freshman in high school and just beginning to really improve on the ice. It was great having that much of a connection to someone that was there making history. He made popular this weird sport that I did that none of my friends or teachers understood. When they saw him, suddenly, it became cool that I did it too.” – Dan Jansen

“To be honest, not a whole lot. I was barely five at the time. I do remember a big, strong guy in a gold suit skating fast.” – Casey FitzRandolph

>>> What made Eric such a great speedskater?

“His real dogged determination. He kept working at it whatever the conditions. He always worked hard. Whatever was in his way, he made it work He was always unflappable. He didn’t get too excited about things he just kept prodding along. He skated a lot. He ice-skated a lot. He was also a very good hockey player. He spent a lot of time skating, not just speedskating. But he liked to skate.” – Beth Heiden

>>> Now that it’s been 25 years, do you have a newfound appreciation for how difficult that feat was and is?

“I don’t know if it will ever happen again in our lifetime. It was a major feat. That’s like running the 100 meters and then running the mile. It’s really unprecedented. I was impressed back then and until this day, I’m still impressed.” – Phil Mahre

“Eric was definitely a man before his time.  What he accomplished in Lake Placid will never be done again … now the athletes are more specialized and don’t have what it takes to win all five.” – Bonnie Blair

“I definitely have a new found appreciation for what he accomplished. To this day, there has never been anyone even in the ballpark to accomplishing what he did.  It will never be done again.  It’s hard to put into words what Eric means to an elite athlete. Everyone I know, including myself, put him on a pedestal. He was/is the best.” – Jennifer Rodriguez

“Twenty-five years later he is still a legend within long track speed skating.  He trained at a different level, had a different mindset, and did something in the sport that probably will never be done again. What he did was simply amazing, and difficulty is only one of the feats that he accomplished.” – Apolo Anton Ohno

“My appreciation for what Eric did has not changed because I have always felt that it is the single greatest feat in the history of sports. And as crazy as that sounds, anyone in our sport will agree with me. He was so far ahead of his time in the middle distance races but could also skate a 500 m. better than anyone and a 10,000 m. Most sprinters can’t skate beyond 1500 meters, let alone be competitive.” – Dan Jansen

“That’s fair to say. I think most skaters, myself included, have tried to quantify what Eric did … tried to legitimize why we can’t do it.  Thoughts like “they didn’t specialize back then” and “the level of competition keeps getting higher”. Give me a break. Fact of the matter is, the guy was not normal … is not normal.  He won EVERY race.” – Casey FitzRandolph

>>> What’s he like in person?

“He’s a big kid who is incredibly modest. When you see him or talk to him, you would never know he swept all five gold medals at the Olympics, won the Allround World Champs, Sprint World Champs and Junior World Champs all in the same year. Not to mention what he has accomplished on the bike and becoming an incredible surgeon. You would never know. He does like to tell stories and I love to hear them. They are great. The man is only in his 40s and has experienced enough for three people. There’s no wasted time there. He’s amazing! – Jennifer Rodriguez

“I have known Eric for many years and sometimes I’m not even sure that he knows how incredible his accomplishments were/are. He never talks about how good he was or what he did. He is a doctor now and his skating life was just part of his past.” – Dan Jansen

“As an individual he is very modest and having a conversation with him will probably not start or end with his speed skating career.” – Apolo Anton Ohno

“One thing that really helped his personality was he speedskating coach Dianne Holum. She had a really good attitude with training. Just getting the job done, not letting things bother you and always going out there and working hard. I think she helped instill that in Eric.” – Beth Heiden

“He’s just a genuine person, very modest, very down to earth and pretty nonchalant about what he really accomplished.” – Phil Mahre

“I don’t know him inside and out by any means, but from what I do know he’s pretty easy going and fun, yet obviously intensely focused when he needs to be in order to have accomplished what he has.” – Casey FitzRandolph

>>> Any favorite Eric Heiden stories?

“Our team went on a cycling camp in California two years ago, so we could do some testing with Eric and his partners. Eric is still in incredible shape and is still incredibly competitive. He took the team (U.S. Team) on an “easy” bike ride and hammered us. He made us all look silly and dropped us. I think he wanted to see if he still had it … he did. His legs are still like tree trunks. I can’t imagine what they looked like while he was skating. He tells a lot of good stories, but they are better heard from him.” – Jennifer Rodriguez

“I’ve heard some pretty good ones through the grapevine from his skating days … some funny stuff. One interesting note is that the day of his last race, the grueling 10,000 meters, he was nowhere to be found at the rink. His coach was in a panic … he grabbed some bread and shoveled it in on his way to the rink; then went out and won another gold.

“Two things stick out … first normal people need something called energy to engage in an activity requiring 100 percent effort for 15 minutes.  Second, normal people need to warm up before they win gold medals.” – Casey FitzRandolph

“I remember that when I was on the table getting ready to get stitched up (after the 1000m) he was standing over me and I looked at him and said that all I wanted to do was to do a small portion of what he did in 1980. He looked at me and said, “Apolo, you did great.” That was awesome.” – Apolo Anton Ohno

“A few years ago, I think it was 2000 or 2001, I played in Dan Jansen’s Charity Golf outing. After golfing I went into the men’s locker room in the clubhouse to change into dinner attire. Eric was doing the same. Now, he’s about 40 years old at the time, and I’m at the peak of my career … within a year, maybe even months, of winning my gold. I look up at Heiden’s incredible physique, look at myself in the mirror, and instantly ask The Lord Above where I went so wrong. All I can think of is Eric standing there thinking to himself: ‘This is the best we got?'” — Casey FitzRandolph

>>> Where does his accomplishment ranked in sports history?

”I believe in the speed skating world he is the athlete that we have always looked up to, admired and always will.  His achievement is, in my book, the best in Olympic history, winter or summer.” – Bonnie Blair

“In speedskating number one, in Olympic and/or sports history definitely top three ever.  I can’t think of anyone else who could have been better or more dominant in any other sport, but I’m sure there’s one or two out there. They would have had to be pretty damn impressive though.” – Jennifer Rodriguez

“EVERY race. That’s like Maurice Greene or Michael Johnson lacing ’em up the next day to go out and WIN the Olympic marathon. It just doesn’t happen. I’m a speedskater, and perhaps I’m biased, but how can you argue that another performance has been more impressive than Eric’s? For all his doubters, I wish they’d added a couple more events, so he could have won those too. Then maybe they’d become believers.” – Casey FitzRandolph

>>> Any final thoughts on the 25th anniversary of Eric Heiden’s 1980 performance?

“I think it is awesome he is being honored, as I don’t believe he got the recognition he deserved with the excitement of the hockey team, which was something that touched our whole nation.  What Eric did though was truly amazing!!!” – Bonnie Blair

“There will never be another Eric Heiden. What he’s accomplished both on and off the ice will never be duplicated. He’s not only a tremendous athlete, but also a tremendous person as well.  That’s hard to come by. It’s so hard to make people understand how hard it is to do what he did.  The only way to explain it is to say that it is guaranteed it will never happen again. I am honored and lucky that I know and get to work with Eric. When he’s around, you can’t help but give it a little extra.  Thanks Eric and congratulations!” – Jennifer Rodriguez

“The 25th anniversary is wonderful and I am very happy to be a part of this incredible celebration!  Fifty years from now his dominance in the sport will still be remembered!” – Apolo Anton Ohno

“I think maybe his accomplishments have been overshadowed by the hockey team in 1980. They’re making movies about that 25 years later and Eric is a trivia question. I take nothing away from what they did, it was certainly one of the greatest sports stories of all time and I cheered as loud as anyone. But sometimes I think about Eric and what he did and why he doesn’t seem to get the credit he deserves for it. But then I realize that I’m not sure he wants it.” – Dan Jansen

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