The word from West Allis, Wis., where the U.S. speed skating team makes its home, is that the age of Eric is back.

Not Eric Heiden, exactly. Those halcyon days in 1980 when the greatest speed skater of all-time led his teammates to eight Olympic medals, winning five golds himself, are over. "That wasn't a skater," said one fan, "that was Superman."

But at least there are two new bearers of the famous name on the '88 U.S. team -- Eric Flaim and Erik Henriksen -- either of whom with a little luck might bring home a medal from Calgary. And alongside them skates a trio of far more probable medal-winners on the latest U.S. speed skating crew, which is a huge improvement over the last one.

After one of its worst Olympic showings ever in 1984 in Sarajevo, when the team won exactly nothing, things are looking up again. Coach Mike Crowe expects his team to match or come close to 1980's eight-medal total, which would probably make it the most productive U.S. team at the Calgary Games, and he's banking on a couple of golds at least from his top men and women sprinters.

"I expect medals from Bonnie Blair in the 500 and 1,000 {meters}," said Crowe, "and she's definitely the one to beat in the 500. She'll also race the 1,500, and though it's no sure thing, she's got a shot at a medal in that as well."

The next-best medal hope, said Crowe, is Nick Thometz in the men's 500, the event in which Thometz holds the world record. Crowe rates him as the favorite to win the gold in the 500 as well as 1,000 meters, where Thometz has the world's fastest unofficial time.

Should he falter in either event, Thometz will be backed up by his training partner and long-time rival, Dan Jansen, a skating powerhouse who for the last two years has been laid low, first by injury and then by illness.

Jansen sliced tendons in his foot two years ago, which wiped out that season. Then, last year, he came down with flu that turned into mononucleosis and put him out again.

Now Jansen is back in form, nipping at Thometz's heels. "He's the type of guy who can just explode in a big competition. He can just rip one," said Crowe.

Crowe sees no reason these top three short-distance skaters can't claim four to six medals by themselves, after which he'll be pulling for a trophy in the 1,500-meter race from Flaim, the team's best all-around skater, and perhaps a top-three finish in the 5,000 or 10,000 meters from distance man Dave Silk.

What has Crowe, a veteran of the '84 disappointment as an assistant coach, particularly optimistic this time around is the layout of the Calgary rink, one of only three Olympic-sized indoor speed skating ovals in the world.

The fact that it's inside, he feels, offers a distinct advantage to his top two skaters, both of whom are small, wiry, technique specialists.

At 5 feet 5, 125 pounds, Blair is tiny compared to her best-known rival, 160-pound East German Karin Enke-Kania. In outdoor rinks, where pure power works in favor of skaters in overcoming head winds, dirt on the track and rough surfaces, the balance tips to Kania.

But Calgary, with its tight turns and complete protection from the elements, offers the ideal surface for a technician like Blair, about whom teammate Mary Docter said, "If you watch her and you know how to skate, you think she skates perfect."

Likewise, Thometz at 5-9 and 160 pounds is smaller than most of his competition and a specialist in technique. "I'm not big," he said. "I'm racing against guys 6 feet and 180 to 200 pounds, so they're more powerful and I have to be more efficient.

"Indoors," Thometz said during team trials at West Allis in December, "you're talking speed, not power. It's a question of cornering technique, basically, and the Americans are usually real good technicians."

But what is good news for Thometz and Blair is not so good for Jansen, who is more a power skater and had fits in the corners at Calgary in competition last fall. At his worst in a high-speed sprint, he was barely able to stay upright on the last turn and lost his chance at a world-class run.

"You've got to have good turns," said Jansen. "The speed is so high, if you can't hold your turns you're out of it." And Jansen admitted his turns are a major worry.

All three, and their rivals in the 500-meter sprint, will face one unpredictable variable in the short-race seedings that could severely affect medal hopes: Their placement on the inside or outside lanes in the dash to the finish line.

"You want the 'first-inner,' " said Henriksen, who also qualified for the 500. "There won't be a skater out there who doesn't want it, and it's going to be real hard to win if you don't get it."

Speed skaters go off in pairs, trading lanes at the end-of-oval turns so each goes the same total distance. But in the 500, they only go around the rink once. As a result, they haven't reached full speed on the first turn but are barrelling along full-tilt by the second, when they turn for the finish.

Henriksen said with Calgary's tight turns, the 500-meter skater who starts on the outside, then must switch to the inside lane for the final, high-speed turn to the line will have a hard time holding on, while the skater on the outside in the final turn will have room to work.

It's a peculiarity of Calgary's high-speed track that could play a vital role in U.S. medal chances. "If you get the last-inner you won't get a medal," said Jansen flatly. "But you've got to put that out of your mind."

The top three U.S. speed skaters, all of whom were on the '84 Olympic team, also will have to put out of their minds any dispiriting memories from that experience. But that shouldn't be hard.

"We're all older now," said Thometz. "In '84, I was 20, DJ {Jansen} was 18 and Bonnie was 20. We just didn't have the experience. But still, I was fourth in the 1,000 and fifth in the 500 and DJ was fourth in the 500. So we were already close to medaling. Now we're stronger, technically better.

"People made 1984 out to be a disappointment, but we were just building."

Blair said when she faced the East German team in 1984, "I thought they were untouchable, and I still felt that way until about 1986." But slowly, Blair said, her technical proficiency began taking its toll against the size and strength of Kania and teammate Krista Rothenburger. And now, with the second-best time ever for a woman in the 500 meters, she's a force to reckon with.

The 1984 experience, Crowe believes, "may actually have helped us. We won no medals; we learned from the experience; we got hungry and now we've matured and developed."

With financial help from the profits of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, "We've kept skaters involved longer than ever before," he said, and Crowe's three-year contract, which started in 1985, gave the team coaching stability.

"I think we're coming together pretty good," said Jack Byrne, president of the U.S. International Skating Association. "These skaters are young. Who knows what they can do? It's certainly a lot better than it was in 1984."