Heiden's goal: just to relax and race bikes
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."