Heiden's View of His Success: What's the Fuss?
By Dave Kindred
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 1980; Page A1
"Not really, heck," speed skater Eric Heiden said after winning his fifth gold medal at the Winter Olympic today. "They all tried hard as they could, too. Heck, gold medals, what can you do with them? I'd rather get a nice warmup suit. That's something I can use. Gold medals just sit there. When I get old, maybe I could sell them if I need the money."
Chances are, whatever Heiden thinks, little Linda Fratianne would trade all her warmup suits for a gold, but the Winter Olympics' favorite in women's figure skating had to settle for a silver tonight when she could not catch Anett Poetzsch of East Germany.
So only Heiden has won gold for the United States, which now has earned 11 medals in these Games with another likely perhaps gold when the American hockey team plays Finland Sunday morning. The Americans last won as many as a dozen Winter medals in 1932.
Well, shucks, the gods of Olympus must have been busy steering a four-man bobsled, because no lightning came to part Eric Heiden's Prince Valiant hairdo on the occasion of his delivered-with-a-sly-smile blasphemy. Mark Spitz put his seven golds three earned in relays in a bank vault. Jim Thorpe's family has worked for decades to get back his two medals, taken away for the sin of professionalism. And here is Eric the Gold saying, heck, what's the fuss?
Whether of not Eric Heiden knows it cynics in the crowd thought they spotted a disingenuous lightness in Heiden's casual dismissal of history he has created a fuss, for this doctor's son from the Midwest is an alchemist on skates, the first man ever to turn ice into gold.
By winning the 10,000-meter speed skating event today, he completed a sweep of the five men's races in these Winter Olympics, winning first at 500 meters, then 5,000, 1000 and 1500 before setting blade to ice today on a 20-degree morning when gray clouds made the Adirondacks invisible and left it to Eric Heiden to light up the world.
Understand this first: In the whole history of the entire planet, absolutely nobody ever went to a 10,000 meter speed-skating race with the idea of being thrilled. You get more thrills reading the act-of-God fine print in your homeowners policy. The race is two people in funny suits gliding 6.2 miles in little circles with one hand behind their back. The winner is decided by times, not head-to-head competition.
But halfway through the 25-lap race today on the oval out front of the Lake Placid High School, there with maybe 3,000 people in the bleachers and a thousand more stopping on Main Street for a free peek, with American flags waving and mittened applause carrying Heiden around each curve there, this stupefying 10,000-meter race became a thriller.
Heiden was on the hunt for a world record. He already had set four Olympic records. And then, as quickly as anyone knew he had a chance at the world record, it was obvious he would break the record unless he turned right somewhere and went off the 90-meter ski jump.
He seemed to turn each 400-meter lap faster than the last. It is hypnotizing to watch the metronomic action of the swinging right arm, the left held back for balance, and soon witnesses came to believe that as Heiden rounded each curve, someone lifted the oval so that he skated downhill always. His last lap, done in 34.5 seconds, was his fastest since the eighth.
Heiden is a racing machine. He is 21, 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, owner of 29-inch thighs, once a high school hockey player, now a weekend tennis hacker. What he has done here, winning everything from a 38-second sprint to a 14½-minute marathon, is underscored by a number one.
Only one other Olympic skater even tried to race all five events. That man, Hilbert Van der Duim of Holland, finished no higher than fourth in anything. Heiden beat 144 competitors in the five events, and when someone asked how he could do such a thing, he smiled quickly and said, "I ate my Wheaties!"
Eric Heiden might make some money in the next year. His family has fought the idea of fame as gross as $1 million, saying enough's enough and no son of the Heidens is going to make an Olympic fool of himself as Spitz did (the mumbling swimmer set back theater 517 years with work on a Bob Hope show).
So why is he pumping cereals? Two days ago he said he owed it all to Kellogg's. He spoke today of posing for a picture, most likely to be turned into a five-gold poster available to every man, woman and child turned on by the dazzling wholesomeness and ferocious animal physique that mark Eric Heiden as a very valuable commercial property.
"We will assess everything for a month or two," said Heiden's lawyer, Art Kaminsky, who was hired by the family a year ago to sort out the blizzard of offers and requests coming to Eric and his sister, Beth, also a world champion skater.
"He's just playing," Kaminsky said.
Some people believe Kaminsky and Heiden don't know the importance of what has happened here. Though Kaminsky, 33, a Yale Law School graduate, includes 40 professional hockey players among his clients, he never has dealt for an Olympic hero whose face has been in more than 10 million homes most every day the last two weeks.
Others believe this will pass quickly. Heiden himself may believe that. Fame for a year is all he expects, he has said, and he admits his game is an exercise in anonymity in America where "people like contact sports so they can see blood."
Heiden plans to go to what he calls a "sports college" in Oslo, Norway, whereby virtue of his dominance in that country's national sport he is a celebrity of the first rank. There his face is on milk cartons and a weekly newspaper column appears under his byline.
After a year there, he will return to his hometown, Madison, Wis., to finish up at the University of Wisconsin and go on to medical school. He has his eye on sports medicine.
First, though he will visit the White House on Monday with the entire U.S. Olympic team. "President Carter never called me," he said with a smile. "But I've kind of disconnected my phone. ... I'd like to see the president, and I've never been to Washington."
Then, Monday night, he flies to Holland for the world championships early next month where, if all goes as expected, this sprinter who is remarkable in that he loves the pain of long distances, this Fort Knox on skates again will fly fast enough to earn more gold. Shucks.
© Copyright 1980 The Washington Post Company
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