George Howie, President of the United States International Speed Skating Association, has a list of probable gold medal winners at Lake Placid. In all nine speed-skating events, only two names appear on Howie's list: Heiden and Mueller.
Beth Heiden and her brother Eric have dominated world competition this year. If they follow form through February, they could very well load their Madison, Wis., home with eight pieces of gold.
Leah Poulos-Mueller of Dousman, Wis., is the best in the world in the other event - the women's 500 meters.
The United States, which has failed to win a gold medal in the men's 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters since 1932 and has never won a gold in the women's 1,000 or 3,000, lately has been the scourge of international speed skating. In world overall and sprint championships for juniors and seniors this year, Americans have taken 27 of the 30 gold medals.
The quality here is higher because training programs have become more intensive," Howie said. 'There has been more interest in and exposure of speed skating."
The United States Olympic Committee has raised its allotment of funding for speed skating and has full-time coaches for the first time ever in pre-Olympic years.
"Speed skating is now the top winter sport in the country in terms of quality and competition," said Dianne Holum, a former gold medalist who is now the Olympic team coach. "With paid coaches instead of part-time volunteers, each skater can get individual attention."
When Holum was hired, she moved to Madison to be near the Heidens. Holum's intensive year-round training regimen had paid off handsomely for the Heidens.
Eric Heiden seemingly cannot be beaten anymore at any distance from 500 to 10,000 meters.The 21-year-old University of Wisconsin student does not even lose in heats. He has won the past three world overall titles and all world sprint titles during the same period.
Heiden holds world low-altitude records at all five Olympic distances. The only skaters who have surpassed his times are Russians who benefitted from skating on high-altitude rinks in Europe, where times are far lower.
"Eric can cream all those guys that broke his records," Holum said.
At the World Championships this year, Heiden won the 500 by one second, the 1,500 by 3 1/2 seconds and the 5,000 by 11 seconds.
"Those times mean he is faster in every race than anyone else by a lot," Holum said.
Heiden's best time in the 500 is two-tenths of a second better than the Olympic record, his best in the 1,000 is five seconds lower than the Olympic standard and his 10,000-meter clocking would have beaten the fastest Olympic skater ever by a whopping seven seconds.
The 6-food-2 Heiden completed in 1976 at Innsbruck, Austria, placing seventh overall in the 1,500 and 19th in the 5,000.
Why the improvement?
"He's a little older, more mature and has had more experience and better training," Holum said. "Because of hise size, he is also a lot stronger. Eric is at the point now where he can handle a lot more of a training workload - heavier weights in weight training and more laps while running - than the other Americans. It's been a gradual progression."
Other American hopefuls include sprinter Dan Immerfall of Madison, 500 meters bronze medalist in 1976; Mike Woods, West Allis, Wis., second in the World 5,00 meters this year, Peter Mueller, the husband of Leah Poulos-Mueller, gold medalist in Innsbruck's 1,000 meters, and Craig Kresler of Midland, Mich., third in this year's Junior World all-arounds, winning the 500 and 3,000.
The principal competition for the United States will come from Norway and Russia. Norwegian Jan Egil Storholt returns to defend his gold medal in the 1,500. Russian Sergie Marchuck finished third in the World all-arounds two years ago.
Frodde Ronning of Norway was second in the 500 meters at the all-arounds this year, just ahead of Canadian Gaeten Boucher. Ronning's fellow countryman, Kay Stenshjemmet, is ranked high in 1,500 and 5,000.
Poulos-Mueller is considered the best in the world in the womenhs 500. She won the World sprint title this year and demonstrated that she is among the top five in the 1,000. Her best of 42.21 in the 500 is a half-second better than the Olympic record.
Beth Heiden is the favorite in the 1,000, 1,500 and 3,000. Heiden won at all four distances in the women's all-arounds this year - Poulos-Mueller sat that one out - and garnered the silver medal at the World sprints.
An up-and-coming 15-year-old is distance specialist Sarah Docter of Madison, who placed 12th in the World all-arounds. Docter is at least four years under the age at which most American can speed skaters peak.
The main competition in women's events will come from Russian and East and West Germany in the sprints and from Russia, Norway and Canada in the longer distances.