February 23, 1980: Having celebrated with the USA hockey team after the previous night’s “Miracle On Ice” upset of the Soviets, Eric Heiden oversleeps that morning. Planning to be up at 6:30 to prepare for the 10,000-meter speed skating event, Heiden rolled out of bed at 7:40. He grabbed three slices of bread for breakfast and raced to the track, where he blew away the competition—smashing the world record by over six seconds. Heiden’s win meant a fifth gold medal, the first time an athlete has won five individual golds in the same Olympic Games.
Heiden’s gold medals represented victories in all five of the men’s speed skating events—all the sprints and all the long-distance races (the four he had already captured were in the 500, 1,000, 1,500 and 5,000-meters. He remains the only athlete ever to sweep. By himself, Heiden won more gold medals in 1980 than all other competing nations except for the Soviet Union and East Germany. Many still call him the greatest speed skater of all time.
Heiden grew up in Wisconsin, and his winters were all about ice. Same for his sister, Beth, who was a bronze medalist in the 3,000-meters at the Lake Placid Games. Heiden became a physician after retiring from speed skating. He practiced as an orthopedic surgeon in Sacramento and served as the team doctor for the NBA’s Kings and the WNBA’s Monarchs. Heiden was also team physician for the U.S. Olympic speed skating team during four different Winter Games from 2002-2014.
At the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, Heiden refused to join other former American gold medalists in the Opening Ceremonies when he was passed over for the lighting of the Olympic torch. That honor was handled by the same guys he partied with in Lake Placid, the 1980 U.S. hockey team. “I was probably just too stubborn,” Heiden said in 2009. “I figured if they don’t appreciate what I did as a skater, if they don’t appreciate now what I am doing as a human being, I’d just as soon hang out with my buddies and watch it. I did not mean to slight the Olympic hockey team in any way.”
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)