Eric Heiden's story is as clean as his rosy cheeks. It is an All-American story, complete with a wide-eyed speed-skating hero with a shy personality, an overly protective mother who beams with pride and a dream, once so distant but now less than a year away.
He is 21, blossoming into an age of awareness and anxiety with impatient vigor. He has just moved into his own apartment, a few miles from his parents' home in one of the classier sections of this pretty university city.
He talks of beer bashes and the day he once stuffed 52 dried prunes into his mouth - 26 on each side, of course.He is uninhibited, rebellious, just enough to assure that he is, after all, a normal person.
But he is so ahead of himself. The son of a doctor, he is now on leave from the University of Wisconsin to train for the Olympics, but he talks about someday becoming a doctor of sports medicine.
In a sport that requires intense dedication and maturity, he has set new standards of achievement - not for the approval of outsiders, but for the love of the sport and its challanges.
He is a private person. He is modest. Already having accomplished so much in such little time, he approaches his one last goal with an unspoiled perspective so unusual for a world-famous superstar of his age.
"From a speed skater's point of view," Heiden said, "the Olympics are very overrated. They're just big in the eyes of the American Public.
"They can't compare to the World championships. In the Olympics, they don't keep overall standings like they do in the World championships. Instead, they give separate medals for 500, 1,000, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters. That doesn't mean as much."
However, the reason Heiden downplays the importance of the Olympics is the same reason he has a good chance to become only the second athlete ever to win more than four gold medals in one Olympics.
Having won all eight world championships for which he has been eligible in the past three years, he is considered a good bet to win five gold medals at the 1980 Winter Olympics in February in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Nobody else has won as many as five. Five have won four.
None of that seems to alter Heiden's perspective. Like sister Beth, 19, who is also a world speed-skating champion, Eric refuses to jump on a bandwagon that, in the long run, could drive him to riches.
In Norway, where speed skating is as big as baseball is the United States, Eric has received more attention than any other foreign athlete in history. Songs about him regularly on front pages of newspapers and back sides of milk cartons. He cannot appear publicly without being noticed. He is forced to adopt a life style in Norway ordinarily reserved for the heaviest of rock stars.
Through all this, his head has stayed amazingly low to the earth, his perpective amazingly realistic. He has not fallen to the hype that lures other amateur athletes into the arenas of commercialism and fatted egos.
"The Olympics are almost to the point where they're not for the athletes," he said. "They're like the one big step an athlete must take before he can be exploited. If you do well in the Olympics you're okay. If you don't you're not."
Not that the Heidens are looking to be exploited. Quite the contrary.
Like their sports-oriented parents, they preach the ideals of amateur athletics, but they have found that living by those ideals in a sports world saturated by professionalism and overexposure is difficult.
Their mother, acting as a buffer between her children and the media, has tried to minimize public attention. Hounded by requests for personal interviews from American and European reporters, she has resisted, citing the need for her children to live normal lives away from the eyes of the media.
She has suggested that reporters make contributions to the U.S. International Speed Skating Association as compensation for interviews. She has said her children have little need for media attention; that if they were professional it would be different, but that they are not.
Only recently, the Heidens hired Arthur Kaminski, a New York attorney who is the agent for several pro hockey players, as an adviser for their dealings with the media and for general affairs. He is not an agent, they stress, but he will screen media requests from this country and abroad, minimizing what the Heidens consider an invasion of their privacy.
"The Heidens expect to be inundated by media requests leading up to the Olympics," Kaminski said. "They're mostly concerned with numerous requests for interviews, but they'll be interviewed very little. For one thing, they have to prepare for the Olympics. And for another thing, they want to live normal lives.
"I've talked to Beth on the phone and I've met Eric, and they're quite exceptional persons. I can see why their parents are concerned. They are extremely nice, intelligent, unspoiled children, and I can see the possibility of exploitation all around them."
Still, the Heidens have been exposed to enough attention and exploitation - especially in Europe, where they are better known that they are in the United States - to become hardened to it. They have not learned to enjoy it, but they have learned to deal with it.
"I don't like the exploitation," Eric said. "People will come up to you and sort of get you in a corner by yourself, and they want to write a book or make a movie, that kind of thing.
"Sometimes, they say if I say something good about the rink, it'll be worth some money, like anywhere from $100 to $1,000. But I just tell them if they want me to do something like that, I won't even skate hard at their rink.
"As for the press, it's kind of a drag dealing with them. But I know the press can make or break you. So it's something we have to put up with. Beth probably likes dealing with the press more than I do, but she hasn't been world champ for three years."
Eric, however, is smart enough to the patient with minor nuisances and candid enough to be a good interview. He is perfectly willing to express his opinions.
"I don't consider baseball players athletes," he said. "A pitcher works hard, but that's about it. A lot of guys just job once in a while or stand in front of the plate. That's not a sport.It's a skill.
"Bowling. It's the same thing. Bowlers aren't athletes. I can't see football, either. They work for 10 seconds, then rest for 30. A sport must require physical exertion, the taxing of the participants' bodies."
Commenting on the new rink at Lake Placid, he said, "The people in charge of the Olympics at Lake Placid don't look for outside help. It's kind of a family operation. The architecture of the rink isn't very good at all. It never should've been done but they didn't ask anyone who knew much about speed skating."
He said a chain-link fence surrounding the track is much too close.
"That could be very dangerous," he said. "So could the big plate-glass window of the house where the officials sit. It should be raised or it should be farther back, but it's so close to the track that it could be dangerous."
Those dangers, however, are not as great for skaters with the control and power of the Heidens. If all goes as expected, they will be among the darlings of the 1980 Winter Olympics, and the fame that is already too great for their tastes will continue to multiply beyond their control. CAPTION: Picture, Eric Heiden has shot at five Olympic gold medals. UPI