At radiant high noon today, in the heart of a snowy Adirondack hamlet, Eric Heiden finally dueled skate-to-skate with Evgeni Kulikov, the legendary king of Russian sprinters.

At 500 meters, Heiden whipped the Soviet world record holder and reigning Olympic champion to bring the United States its first gold medal of these Winter Games.

After today, the rest of these Olympics may simply serve as a coronationn for Heiden -- a fortnight when his own nation learns what the world already knows: that he is one of the great Olympians ever in any sport.

Heiden, 21, faced a chancy race in the mercurial 500 meters. And, in the formidable Kulikov, he confronted a prestigious foe. This was the one race of his life for which the stoic Heiden admitted his heart was in his mouth.

Now, after this gigantic, gliding stride toward Olympic immortality, Heiden's path is much clearer toward becoming the first person in the history of either summer or winter Games to win five individual golds, relays excluded.

In his other four races here, Heiden will be an odds-on favorite, since his established times document that he is, from 1,000 to 10,000 meters, the best in the world.

Today, Heiden was dealing with hundredths of seconds. In fact, had Kulikov not made a tiny slip turning for home, Heiden's margin over the silver medalist might have been an eyelash, rather than a decisive five meters, 38.03 seconds to 38.37.

The Lake Placid speed skating rink was atwitter with anxiety before Heiden and Kulikov, the first pair on the ice, even appeared. An hour earlier, Eric's sister, Beth, had finished disastrously in the women's 500 meters, the second straight day she had placed seventh in an event in which she was one of the favorites.

Only a silver medal by Leah Poulos-Mueller, who won a silver at 500 meters in 1976, kept the U.S. speed-skating titans from being shut out in the first two Olympic races. Was a U.S. disaster in the offing?

Adding to the ominous mood was Poulos-Mueller's decision not to wear the new U.S. "gold-for-gold" uniform, preferring a red suit that had served her well for years.

"I was not comfortable with the gold -- not with how it fit or with what it stood for," she said. "I thought it was a bit gauche and just begged for bad luck."

The mood of tension, bordering on panic increased as U.S. Coach Dianne Holum skated nervously around and around the rink as Eric Heiden warmed up. Her teeth were bared in a grimace.

"U-S-A" and "Er-ic, Er-ic" chanted the standing-room only crowd that earlier had begged Poulos-Mueller, with eerie solitary cries, to "Come on, Leah. Get a medal, please."

Seldom does speed skating, that dash against the clock, have what amounts to a two-man match race. But today it did.

"We both knew we were racing for the gold," said Kulikov. "We worry little about those who come later."

Heiden and Kulikov, who had never been paired before in all their years of fame, each false-started once gambling for an edge. Three false starts meant disqualification.

On the third gunshot, Heiden broke to an infinitesimal lead, but by the 100-meter mark Kulikov was a meter ahead, 10.08 to 10.13.

"Going down the backstretch, he seemed to be quite a bit ahead of me," said Heiden, who, after starting in the outside lane, was 10 meters behind at the midrace crossover.

The crowd, many not realizing that most of the gap was illusory, groaned.

But, in the second turn, 150 meters from the finish, just as Kulikov made his misstep, Heiden hit the jets and gambled, figuring he might as well go out of control and fly off the course as lose with a cautious style.

"The three strokes coming out of the second turn were so strong," said Heiden, eyes bright, "That I felt like I was being fired out of a sling shot."

And that is how it looked. In little more than a blink, Heiden, eight meters behind, flew out of the last turn with his nose in front. The crowd erupted. Heiden exploded for the finish and Kulikov wilted, losing ground steadily the last 100 meters.

Immediately after the finish, Heiden pulled down his cowl, shook his long hair and smiled. His 38.03 would not challenge Kulikov's 37.00 world mark set in 1975 on a faster track, but he knew it would probably stand up today.

For the next 45 minutes, the crowd's breath was baited as a thousand onlookers outside the rink fences craned their necks to see each official time flash on the board. The discomfort in scoreboard-watching was the only difference between their free perch and the 6,000 $20 seats.

Lieuwe DeBoer of Holland was a surprising third in 38.48, while Norway's Frode Roenning, who has edged Heiden at 500 meters twice in the last year, took fourth in 38.66.

"This took a lot of pressure off me. Now I can relax and cope better with the rest of the week," said Heiden, the four-time world champion who has adopted a pose of such calm here that he is in danger of being mistaken for the next Marlon Brando.

"This should give me a lot of confidence. In my other four races, I would have to perform poorly and someone else would have to be exceptional for me not to win," said the candid Heiden, who races at 5,000 meters Saturday.

"I can't celebrate until next Saturday night," said Heiden, "but then you'll see a lot of celebrating."

Raisa Smetenina continued the Soviet Union's domination of cross-country skiing, grabbing a five-second victory in the women's five-kilometer race. Her triumph, in 15.06.92, gave the 27-year-old school teacher her first gold medal of this Olympics; she won two in 1976.

In the luge, East German Dettlef Guenther, biding to become the first repeat gold medalist in the sport, crashed in the final curve and lost the lead he held through the first two runs.

Guenther got back onto his sled to finish in 46.88, for an overall time of 2:13.63, for ninth place.

The leader going into the final run is Ernst Haspinger of Italy, who ran the course in 43.59 for an overall 10:86.

But Eric Heiden's success and the relative failure of the other U.S. speed skaters were the principal tones of debate.

"Our team has a lot of talent and togetherness, but not much experience under pressure," said Poulos-Mueller, a skater for 21 of her 28 years who calls herself "little old consistent me."

"The biggest problem in this sport is being so keyed up that you forget how to relax," she said. "The pressure is hitting everybody on this team in a different way."