"Eric Heiden is the biggest, greatest skater there has ever been. The rest of us are waiting for the next Olympics. Now, the medals are delivered before the race begins." -- Frode Roenning, Norway, bronze medalist
The skates of Eric Heiden have a special sound.
As he passes, others on the ice listen, then turn their heads, as though Heiden's arrival were heralded by a signal as clear and familiar as the first notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
The atonal Heiden symphony is a high-pitched screech made by the ice crushing beneath his push, followed by a sharp click as the toe of his right skate flicks the ice in an unnecessary but distinctive personal signature.
"Squeak, crush, click," said U.S. Coach Dianne Holum, her back to the Olympic rink. "That must be Eric."
This 21-year-old 190-pound demiurge of an athlete, who was almost unknown in his own land until this month, won his third gold medal of the Winter Olympics today, breezing at 1,000 meters. No man has won more gold in these Winter Games.
Soon, Heiden's name will be as familiar to Americans as the sound of his skates has become to the competitors whom he has crushed in every significant international race of the last four years.
Heiden does not win; he destroys and demoralizes. His foes here are prostrate before him and his skate blades seem to have slit the jugular of their racing will.
Before Heiden sprang full-grown from Holum's head at the tiny U.S. speed skating colony in West Allis, Wis., the world had known skating sprinters and distance racers and even all-arounders.
But Heiden is everything -- the champion of every distance from the shortest (500 meters) to the longest (10,000 meters).
This Olympics is Heiden's one-man stand against the world, a tour de force of training, courage and grace under pressure. The best skaters in the world are specializing at one or two distances, hoping to ambush Heiden.
With no success so far. Heiden has set Olympic records in all three of his races. If he wins twice more, he will be the first person in the history of the Olympics, summer or winter, to win five individual gold medals.
A track man who dominated every distance from the quarter-mile to the 5,000 meters might be roughly comparable. And no such creature has ever appeared.
Before Heiden is denigrated as the emperor of an obscure athletic realm, it should be noted that the Soviet Union alone has 500,000 competitive speed skaters.
Nevertheless, it is doubtful, no matter how great Heiden's fame now, that the U.S. public will have sufficient time to appraise, savor and truly understand his work.
Heiden, nearly anonymous outside his home town of Madison, Wis., has been an athlete of world stature since 1977 because he is the king of a sport that epitomizes power, pain and poise.
Heiden's 6-foot-1 body, a volatile essence of muscle, seems to strain at his skin-tight gold suit like a power plant in which his 29-inch thighs are the principal pistons. Those rippling pins, almost grotesquely defined, the key to his success.
"I don't have a lot of leg speed," Heiden said today. "I don't run the turns, like a sprinter. But I get the most out of every stroke.'
Watch Heiden, muffled in a great coat, as he warms up, hands behind his back, body moving like a metronome. Each stroke is a separate isometric exercise, a distillation of applied force and extreme patience.
"I take 12 strokes in the straight-aways and, usually, 10 in the turns. I keep track," Heiden said. "Others take more."
But no one explodes in the turns like Heiden. He is so strong that, he says, "I have trouble turning in the inside lane." He means that his power is too great for such a narrow space.
Many athletes have muscles. Few have Heiden's strength of mind, his mulish will inside a thoroughbred's physique.
"You plan the perfect race in your mind," he said. "You figure your strategy. But the last thing you do is think about the pain. You anticipate it, so you can ignore it."
Each race has different pains.
"After the 1,000 or 1,500" he said, "your throat may burn for half an hour. Then you stuff up for a couple of days, which is kind of a drag."
In the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, "your're so hunched over that you can't get a real breath. Your left thigh, which takes the force of every turn, really kills you. The last couple of laps, you just struggle."
The final ingredient is Heiden's profound composure, his almost languid, leonine bearing. His spirit, like his stroke, is deliberate, yet fluid.
Others here must fight to relax, a contradiction. Even Heiden's sister, Beth the women's world speed skating champion in 1979 has been knotted by anxiety, finishing seventh, seventh and fifth in an embarrassingly poor Olympics.
Yet Heiden must prod himself to wake up in time to collect his next gold medal. This young man is one of those sleepy-eyed killers.
Heiden is a pre-med major at the University of Wisconsin, where he hopes to study to be an orthopedic surgeon like his father.
He is part of the "no big deal" generation. A little pressure, some excitement: it just perks him.
All around him are high-wired folks; the protective Holum; the arrogant young agent-lawyer Art Kaminski; the cracklingly smart and ambitious mother, Nancy Heiden, with her raccoon coat and fashionable sunglasses. They would claw out the world's eyes to guard Eric.
In their midst, Heiden shrugs and grins, yawns and makes a friendly joke. But at intervals perhaps to keep a ring of distance around himself, Heiden pulls daredevil stunts, climbs the Alps, rides a bobsled, talks of celebrating his Olympic triumph by riding down the luge ran here on his skates.
Slowly, precisely powerfully Heiden strokes his way around the Olympic rink as he meditates and prepares himself.
Only days ago, it seems, he arrived -- the hero that a harried nation badly wanted.
Now, this young man whose name will go down with the greats of Olympic history, is a national relic.