Overslept, over-won
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com

"If I looked at myself I would probably say that I am a very driven person to the point of almost being selfish. I wasn't around for birthdays or Christmas. Maybe I'm one of the ultimate hedonists, I don't know. I like doing the things I like to do and have a hard time compromising," says Eric Heiden on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, February 19, 10:30 p.m. ET). Heiden, winner of all five men's speed-skating races at the 1980 Winter Olympics, was voted No. 46 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.


Feb. 23, 1980 -- Between winning his fourth and fifth gold medals, Heiden was busy on several fronts. At the request of Time magazine, which wanted to be prepared if Heiden were to win his fifth race, the speed skater borrowed a gold medal and was pictured with five golds dangling around his neck.

 Eric Heiden
Eric Heiden blew away the world record in the 10,000 for his final gold medal.

Heiden also attended the U.S.-Soviet Union hockey game the day before his final race. Two friends from Wisconsin, Mark Johnson and Bob Suter, were on the U.S. team. After the Americans scored their stunning upset, Heiden did some celebrating and then he overslept.

"I was supposed to get up at 6:30," he said. "At 20 to eight they were pounding on my door wanting to know where I was."

At the rink for the 10,000-meter race, he was paired with the Soviet Union's Viktor Leskin, the world record holder in the event (14:34.33). He learned that Norway's Tom Erik Oxholm had already skated 14:36.60, almost seven seconds faster than Heiden's personal best.

"Oxholm already has a 14:36 in the bank, and jeez, I was figuring I could win with about a 14:40," Heiden says. "God, I was scared." Though he went out in a 14:30 pace, he still trailed Leskin halfway through the 25-lap race. But while Leskin faded because of the rapid pace, Heiden picked it up another notch. He finished in a remarkable 14:28.13, breaking the world record by 6.2 seconds, and finishing 23.59 seconds ahead of Leskin.

"It hurt," Heiden said. "All I could think about was how good it would feel when I could stand up."

About as good as the editors of Time felt.


In 1977, when Heiden won his first World Championships, he became the first American man to win the title since Joseph Donoghue in 1891.

That year the 18-year-old Heiden also won the World Sprint Championships and the Junior Worlds, the first to accomplish this trifecta. He repeated the feat in 1978.

Heiden set a world record in the 3,000 meters (4:07.1) for the first time on March 2, 1978, at Inzell, West Germany. He would break the record two more times, with a best of 4:06.47 in Inzell on March 6, 1980.

On March 12, 1978, he broke the 1,000-meter world record with his 1:14.99 at Savalen, Norway. He also would break this mark twice, with a best of 1:13.60 on Jan. 13, 1980 in Davos, Switzerland.

In 1979 in Oslo, Heiden won all four races (500, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters) on the way to his third consecutive World Championships title.

Heiden's younger sister Beth also won the World Championships in 1979.

In the late seventies in Norway, where speed skating is as big as baseball is in the U.S., Heiden received more attention than any other foreign athlete in history did. Songs about him were written and he appeared on the back of milk cartons.

Heiden: "I don't consider baseball players athletes. A pitcher works hard, but that's about it. It's the same thing in bowling. Bowlers aren't athletes. I can't see football, either. They work for 10 seconds, then rest for 30. A sport must require physical exertion, the taxing of the participants' bodies."

At the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, the U.S. won six gold medals -- five by Heiden and one by the hockey team. If Heiden had been a country, he would have finished third in the final gold medal standings, behind the Soviet Union (10) and East Germany (nine).

For 1980, Heiden won the Sullivan Award as the best U.S. amateur athlete, the UPI International Athlete of the Year and was named the USOC Sportsman of the Year for the third time in four years. Beth also won the USOC award in 1980.

In January 1981, Heiden became a professional bicycle rider and was named captain of the 7-Eleven racing team.

Heiden married Karen Drews, a doctor, in 1995. They live in Sacramento, where Heiden is an orthopedic surgeon.