I recently jumped into a time machine—you know, the wondrously entertaining world of YouTube—and traveled back to February 1980, landing at the Winter Olympic Games at Lake Placid. There, I grabbed a front-row seat at the city’s speedskating oval for the extraordinary gold-medal performances of US speedskater Eric Heiden. Winner of five gold medals at the 1980 Games—more than any individual before or since at a single Winter Games—Heiden went on to become an American hero and international superstar.
It might be difficult for modern audiences to grasp the sheer magnitude of Heiden’s feat: Think Michael Phelps on ice. Heiden, unbelievably, won gold medals at five different distances—500, 1000, 1500, 5000 and 10,000 meters—setting Olympic records in the first four events and an Olympic and world record in the 10,000. In all, Heiden won more gold medals that year than every country represented at the Games other than the Soviet Union and East Germany—and his five golds were more than those garnered by Finland, Switzerland, West Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Canada, Great Britain, Japan and France combined.
After his showstopping performance in 1980, though, Heiden wasn’t done breaking sports records: In ’85, he swapped his skates for a bicycle and won the US Professional Cycling Championship. He was also part of the first American team to compete at the Tour de France in ’86 but fell during the 18th stage and suffered a concussion, essentially ending his cycling career. And then, seemingly beyond comprehension, Heiden reinvented himself again in the 1990s, this time as an orthopedic surgeon, completing a medical degree at Stanford University in ’91 and doing his orthopedic residency at the University of California at Davis in ’96. “It was always a path I planned on taking,” says Heiden. “My father was a doctor, and I knew it would be my calling after sports.” Dr. Heiden then spent a year at a sports medicine clinic in Alabama before returning to California to begin practicing as a surgeon while also serving as team physician for the Sacramento Kings of the National Basketball Association. In 2006, he moved to Utah with his wife, Dr. Karen Heiden (the couple met at Stanford), and two years later they established Heiden Orthopedics in Park City and Salt Lake City.
Four decades after his dominant performance at Lake Placid, only Phelps (at Beijing) has equaled Heiden’s record of five gold medals in individual events at a single Olympics (Mark Spitz won seven golds in 1972 at the Munich Games, but three of those were in relay events). To that end, in 1999, the Associated Press named Heiden “Winter Olympian of the Century,” and ESPN has ranked him No.46 among the greatest athletes of the 20th century. I recently spoke, exclusively, with the Olympic champion, now 61, from his home in Park City, UT.
What were your expectations going into the Lake Placid Winter Olympics? Did you have a goal of winning five gold medals or did that seem too far-fetched?
My expectations were to be standing on the podium after every race. I believed I could finish top three in each event. That was absolutely realistic in my mind. I did dream a bit about winning all five, but it wasn’t something that I expected to happen. I thought it was possible if I performed at my absolute best, but a lot of things can happen, and you never know when something unforeseen can pop up. Sometimes luck isn’t on your side. It just all came together at the precise right time. I got in a zone pretty quickly. Winning the 500 really set the tone and got my confidence and momentum building. The races all took place in a small window. I think from my first race to my last, it was only nine days, so there wasn’t a lot of time to fall out of rhythm, which really is a great thing when you’re performing well.
At the time, were you able to wrap your head around the fact that you’d won more gold medals than any other country besides the Soviet Union and East Germany?
That’s pretty hard to comprehend because of all the world-class athletes that were there representing their countries. I’ve never really thought about it or analyzed it from a perspective like that. I’m just really appreciative that I was as successful as I was and that everything fell into place the way it did. Even thinking about it now in those terms, it’s not something I think I could properly articulate.
During the Games, were you aware of your growing fan base, heightened interest from the media and that you were becoming a sex symbol?
No, I was actually pretty oblivious to everything that was going on around me at the time. I kept a pretty sharp focus on what I had to do there. It’s a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to represent your country on a stage like the Olympics, and I had my head on pretty good. I enjoyed it all and soaked up the experience as much as I could, but I was locked in as far as keeping my focus on the ice and not letting any outside distractions get in my head. I had some success competing in Europe before the Olympics, so I got used to being able to handle the press and any commotion that came with all of that.
What’s one of your most vivid memories from those Games, which, maybe, the average television viewer wouldn’t have known about?
Well, I think some people may know this story, but I haven’t talked about it all that much. Myself and some of the other American athletes had a pretty late night after the hockey team beat Russia. We didn’t get that crazy or anything, but we had somewhat of a suite area in the hockey arena for the Russia game and we enjoyed ourselves, and it got pretty late. I had my final race the next morning [the 10,000 meters] and I slept through my alarm. It was almost a disaster. I was scrambling pretty good, and it was a bit of chaos, but I made it in time, and everything worked out.
Were you able to experience the city of Lake Placid at all during the Olympics?
To an extent. I went to some shows, saw some entertainers, went to a couple movies. I spent a lot of my time watching the other sports. I got to see all the US hockey games. My schedule worked out perfect for all of that, which was such a surreal experience. I was sitting right near the press area next to Al Michaels and Ken Dryden for the gold medal game. I’ll never forget that. There were a couple guys on the hockey team I grew up around, and I’m still friends with some of those guys today.
What was it like being around that US hockey team during its “Miracle On Ice” performance?
Those guys supported me, and I was a huge fan of everything they were accomplishing. It’s remarkable what they achieved, and it rightfully got the attention it deserved. It continues to endure because of how they won, the odds they overcame and what it meant to the country. It was so emotional. That was a gritty bunch of guys with great determination, and Herb Brooks was a terrific coach and motivator. He brought such an important dynamic and was as big a part of why they won as any of the players. Nobody on the outside gave that team any chance to do anything. They got crushed by the Russians in their final exhibition game, and it was a tall mountain to climb, but they believed and pulled it off. Most people called it a miracle, but that was a great team that just needed to find a way to bring it all together.
You appeared on the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated—and had countless endorsement opportunities pitched your way, but you made a conscious decision to turn most of them down. Why was that?
I was very particular about what I wanted to be associated with, but the bigger reason was because I didn’t want to live my life under a microscope and constantly be in the public eye. I didn’t want to be on billboards or splashed across TVs. I did a few endorsements for things I was comfortable with, but I was never going to be a pitchman. I’m not knocking it or anybody who does it, but that just wasn’t for me, and it wouldn’t have been natural or genuine. I wanted to move on and do different things in my life, and getting caught up in all of that just didn’t interest me.
In February 2018, you returned to Lake Placid for the first time since 1980. You took a lap around the speedskating oval with your son, and people asked you for autographs and selfies. What was it like going back?
It really was like stepping back in time. Everything looked pretty much the way it did in 1980. Walking down Main Street, all the shops and restaurants were basically as they were back then. I’m sure some of the names on the doors have changed, but it was all as I remembered. It was great to see that. Lake Placid is one of those places that hasn’t needed to change to be successful. I brought my family, and we had a great time. We saw all the training facilities, went to the hockey rink, the skating rink, went to the field where they held the opening ceremony, visited the ski jumps, the bobsled complex. Mirror Lake was just as I remembered it, with all sorts of people skating out on the ice. It was special to be back. Lake Placid is just a wonderful place. The best part was being there with my family. They were amazed that a place so small hosted the Olympics. With all the requirements and standards of the International Olympic Committee that are in place today, you’ll probably never see a little town like Lake Placid get the Olympics again.