First Eric Heiden won the 500-meter race. Then the 1,000. Then, astonishingly, the 1,500. Then, in a scene that was becoming quite ridiculous, he won the 5,000. Then, to absolutely numb the athletic world, he not only won the 10,000, but did so while smashing the world record. He did this all in one stirring, unforgettable 10-day span in winter world competition.
The lasting memory of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. is of the United States men's hockey team beating the Soviet Union and Finland to win the gold medal and entertaining the universe with three of the wildest and most emotional celebrations in sports history.
But it was one Eric Heiden, a quiet, humble and modest speed skater from Madison, Wisconsin, who rewrote history by becoming the first athlete in Winter Olympics history to win five individual gold medals.
It's Saturday, February 23, 1980, the next-to-last day of the Olympic competition. The streets in and around Lake Placid are swarming with people, clad in parkas, mittens and woolen scarves. Most of them are on their way to the speed skating oval to watch Heiden's attempt to reach the pinnacle of Olympic history.
The thousands of fans who can't get into the oval are peering over fences, leaning over balconies of restaurants, and climbing in trees as Heiden, 21, skates to the starting line for one of the most unforgettable 14½-minute moments in sports history.
Heiden is matched in the second pair against the Soviet Union's Viktor Leskin, the current world record-holder at 10,000 meters. Norway's Tom Erik Oxholm, skating in the first pair, clocks a 14:36.60. Heiden knows that is what he has to beat to win his fifth gold medal.
"After seeing Oxholm skate, I was scared," Heiden would say later. At the same time, he's more pumped up than he can ever remember. The race begins. After the first five laps of the 25-lap race, Heiden and Keskin are side by side, a pair of blurs shadowing each other. At the halfway mark, Heiden, garbed in the U.S. team's flashy gold skating suit, takes the lead -- for good.
The public address announcer enthusiastically informs the crowd that Heiden is two seconds ahead of Oxholm's pace. The crowd begins to rise. Slowly, the chant begins: "Eric! Eric! Eric!" With 10 laps to go, Heiden is 3.5 seconds faster than Oxholm's pace. With seven laps left, he's 5.5 seconds faster. The crowd stomps its feet and wildly shakes cowbells. With four laps to go, the PA announcer is out of control, telling the crowd that Heiden is an astounding seven seconds faster than Oxholm. The crowd howls, "Eric! Eric! Eric!"
As Heiden skates into the last lap, a thoroughbred on ice, he's blowing away Leskin, having built a three-quarters of a lap lead. The scene inside and outside the oval is pure hysteria. As Heiden blazes across the finish line, there's a moment of silence and stunned awe as the time of 14:28.13 freezes on the scoreboard. Seconds later, a burst of uncontrolled euphoria erupts, gradually getting louder and louder as Heiden slowly and magically skates around the oval to acknowledge the crowd. His time is 6.2 seconds faster than the world mark set in 1977 by Victor Loshkin of the Soviet Union.
When former Olympic champion Piet Kleine of The Netherlands finishes in the sixth pair at 14:36.03, Heiden wins the gold -- again. His fifth of the Games, an astounding performance indeed, especially considering this: U.S. speed skaters, in the previous 56 years of Winter Olympic competition, had won a total of 11 gold medals -- and Heiden winds up winning five in 10 days, showing that no one, at any distance in the world, is his equal. Not even close.
When the Games end, when the quaint upstate New York town of Lake Placid returns to quiet normalcy, Heiden would say the five golds are not a big deal, that "they'll probably sit in my mom's dresser, collecting dust." He is a throwback to a time when athletes downplayed their dominance, their brilliant performances. Gloating is not part of Heiden's persona. Amazingly, he retires after the Winter Games, shunning the celebrity spotlight, saying, "I liked it when I was a nobody."