Heiden's goal: just to relax and race bikes
New York — Olympic hero Eric Heiden is trying his hand at bicycle racing for the moment, and he plans to play some hockey next winter, but mainly this is a time when he wants to relax, have fun, and think about getting on with the next phase in his life.
"My top priority now is pursuing my studies," says the young man whose name became a household word last February when he won five speed skating gold medals at Lake Placid. He plans to spend the next year in Norway, where he can study sports medicine and also be near his girlfriend, who lives in Oslo. After that, his timetable calls for returning home and continuing his studies at the University of Wisconsin.
Eric knows he could still cash in on his fame via the Madison Avenue-TV route , as have such other Olympic superstars as Mark Spitz and Bruce jenner, but for now at least, that path isn't the one for him.
"It would involve a lot of time and travel," he says. "There are so many things to do when you get into commercials and endorsements. Right now, I want to have fun -- not be making ads all the time."
Part of "having fun" is his current involvement with cycling. He tried out for the US Olympic team, and although he didn't make it, he was close enough to be selected as an alternate. He has kept on racing, and is currently competing in an international Grand Prix series that began in this area and concludes in Los Angeles Saturday.
Cycling, with its similar emphasis on upper leg strength, is more or less second nature to speed skaters. Most of them do it for training during the summer, and some compete as well (Sheila Young, for instance, won Olympic and/or world championship gold medals in both sports a few years ago). But Eric has no illusions. He is well aware of how much time and effort would be needed to attempt such a "double" in the big-time world of international men's cycling -- and he has no intention of making such a commitment.
"It's weird, because people ask me, 'Are you gonna win today?' and things like that," he told me during the New York-New Jersey phase of the Grand Prix races, in which he has not been a contender.
"I can't believe the things they ask me," he added. "Anybody who knows anything about athletics knows you don't just jump into a sport and become a top world class competitor. I've gotta pay my dues. When I can finish a race with the field, I feel I've done well.
"I'm out there to have a good time. I'm serious about racing, and I hope to improve, but I'm never going to spend the time in it that I did in skating."
As for hockey, Eric is adopting a "wait and see" philosophy. He played the sport as a boy (he was once a teammate of Olympian Mark Johnson, who is now in the National hockey League) but eventually gave it up in favor of speed skating. Now he plans to give it another try, but he doesn't know any more than the next person does how things will go, or how serious he might get about it.
"I played right wing back then," he said recalling his boyhood experiences. "It was fun, and I did okay. But It's been five years since I played the game seriously.
"I'm supposed to play for a club team in Norway next year. It's a pretty good level -- three of their Oylmpians are on the team. So I should get some idea.
"I'm eager to see how I do. I wouldn't rule out trying it as a pro sometime. But let's just see what happens first."
And what would his potential be, say, in the NHL? I asked New York Islanders coach Al Arbour that question recently while his team was in the midst of its drive to the Stanley Cup. Arbour knows that an Olympic hockey player can sometimes step right in even at the highest level -- defenseman Ken Morrow did it on his own club this past winter and helped it to the cup -- but this would be a case of an athlete also changing his sport.
"We know he has great skating speed and ability," Al said. "Those things would carry over. The other thing is hockey sense, and that's something you can't really tell without seeing him play. He'd probably need training somewhere. I'd have to see him play to make a real judgment. It would be interesting."
But whether it's bicycle racing, hockey, his studies, TV ads, or a combination thereof, whatever Eric Heiden does in the rest of his life is almost certain to be overshadowed by those glorious nine days in Lake Placid when he captured the hearts of the nation with his winning smile, his youthful enthusiasm -- and those five gold medals. He knows this, and he doesn't seem to mind reliving the moment and savoring the memories once again.
He was the "golden boy," of course, even before the Winter Games began. The dominant speed skater in the world for three years, he had long since become an international celebrity in countries like Norway and Holland where the sports is big-time. In the United States, of course, speed skating doesn't enjoy such popularity on a regular basis -- but it does once every four years, when the lure of Olympic medals and the historic success of American athletes in the sport creates a temporary boom. So Eric saw his picture on magazine covers before the games, along with stories predicting that he might sweep all five men's events even though the wide range of distances (from 500 to 10,000 meters) would seem to call for specialists either in sprinting speed or endurance.
"I just let all that stuff go in one ear and out the other," he said when asked if he too had considered the possibility of a sweep. "I figured maybe two gold medals. But I never thought I'd win all five!"
The two he was counting on most were the 1,000 and the 1,500 ("my best races"). Least likely, he thought, was the 5,000 ("Psychologically, I've always had a tough time skating this one. It's a hard race for me."). The 10,000 came last, so he wasn't thinking too much about it at the beginning. As for the 500, which opened the program, "I felt I'd do well, but so many people had times within a few tenths of a second of each other that it was hard to know who would win."
And what were his thoughts as the competition progressed?
"Each race was different -- and each victory had a different type of thrill," he said. "The 500 was great, of course, because it was my first gold medal. But the 5,000 was the turning point as far as doing better than I had expected. After that race, it was all downhill. I could skate the way I wanted to. I didn't have to worry about pressure any more."
Indeed he didn't, with two gold medals already in his pocket and his best events still to come. But after picking up victory No. 3 in the 1,000, he nearly came a cropper in his other specialty, the 1,500, when he caught a blade and almost crashed to the ice before steadying himself with his hand and continuing on to another triumph.
"Yeah, I was almost down," he recalled. "It was pretty close. The first thing I thought was that I was going to hit the other guy. Then for a moment I even had visions of meeting the people in the stands! But I was able to recover pretty quickly, and actually I didn't lose much time at all. I was really happy with the way I skated and with my time."
So he came into the last event with an opportunity he had never anticipated -- a chance for a sweep -- but still he wasn't really confident of pulling it off.
"I was surprised I did so well in this one," he said. "I went out to give it my best shot, but after all the other races I'd had to prepare for and compete in, i didn't think I'd win the 10,000. It was a big thrill, of course -- -- especially since I hadn't expected it and since it gave me all five gold medals."
Two weeks later Heiden competed in the world championships at Heerenveen, the Netherlands, and in an apparent post-Olympics letdown he failed in his bid for a fourth consecutive overall world title.Eric managed only one first place (in the 500), along with a second, a third, and a sixth in the two-day, four-event competition, finishing second overall to Dutch schollteacher Hilbert van der Duim. And according to his current plans, that marked the end in major speed skating competition.
"My times have gotten better every year, and the top European skaters are mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, so I could probably still improve," the 21-year-old Heiden said. "But there are other things more important now -- like finishing school.
"I'll continue skating for recreation, and maybe compete in some small races, " he added, "but not at world class."