Erich Heiden -- good as gold at Olympics

Talk about being put on the spot. Before Eric Heiden ever touched one of his 17-inch blades to the Olympic speed skating oval here, he had appeared on the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated.

On the latter, he's pictured pumping through a curve, his sculptured thigh muscles bulging under a frogman-style racing suit.

This second "skin" is a shimmering gold, a color adopted for the US speed skating team in anticipation of a medal haul in Lake Placid.

Heiden, of course, was expected to be the real golden boy of these games, and so far he has not disappointed.

The Madison, Wis., native has already won the 500, 5,000, and 1,000 meters. If he can add a victory in the 1,500 today and follow it up with a triumph in the grueling 10,000 Saturday, he will have achieved a feat unprecedented in Olympic history -- a sweep of the speed skating medals. (Ard Schenk of the Netherlands won at three of four distances in 1972.)

Asked what his reaction was to all the talk of his five gold medal potential, Eric casually admits, "To tell you the truth, it goes in one ear and out the other."

And what of the new gold uniforms and their blatant symbolism? "It's always nice to get a new uniform, but they cold be green as far as I'm concerned."

These responses are rather typical of this 6 ft. 1 in., 185-pound former hockey player. Eric has never approached the Olympics as a launching pad to fame and fortune. Despite his wholesome good looks, he has no plans to cash in on his success in the manner of Mark Spitz or Bruce Jenner.

When a reporter here asked if he was braced to become a national hero, he sidestepped a direct answer, saying only, "I really like my privacy. In Norway and holland, everybody's head turns when I walk by. That's all right for a while, but I've enjoyed not being recognized in this country."

Whatever anonymity he's enjoyed in the past has all but evaporated. Every other day he grabs headlines. And ABC-TV has trained its cameras on him enough that his rainbow-striped knit hat, a gift of his girlfriend, is now a recognizable fixture to millions of viewers.

His sister Beth, 20, has for several years been almost as much of a story as her 21-year-old brother.Though somewhat fragile looking at 5-2 and 106 pounds, she won last year's world championship racing against generally heavier skaters. A civil engineering student at the University of Wisconsin, she is also a cycling champion in the mold of former American Olympian Sheila Young, another two-sport star.

Despite her excellent record, Beth is not the dominating skater that Eric is. Yet since the end of last season, she, too, has worn the mantle of expection that more realistically fell to her brother.

"If I could have changed my name last spring I would have," she joked the other day after failing for the third time to crack the medal barrier (she finally did get one on her last chance, taking the bronze in the women's 3,000). Like her brother, though, she has no hang-ups about medals and genuinely seemed undisturbed by her failure to do quite as well in the gold-silver-bronze tables as her supporters had expected.

It's this shared approach to the visible Olympic rewards that led one foreign journalist to ask Eric what made him tick if it wasn't the glory in medals.

"I just enjoy skating," he replied. "After training so hard I just want to skate a well as I can."

The incredible dedication of this young pre-med major is a source of a amazement to many people. Recognition generally comes only once every four years to American speed skaters, and between Olympics the training and overseas travel seem downright tortuous.

Away from the rink, Eric's not past pulling his share of pranks, including dropping buckets of water out hotel windows. Yet on the ice, no one sets a better example.

"When you good off, you can't blame anybody but yourself for failure," he says. "I see some of the other sports in this country as really being very egotistical, directed toward a professional career and the rewards. I don't think they require the kind of drive and determination that we have to produce."

As a youngster, Eric once had his sights set on a hockey career, while Beth was a promising figure skater. Their interst in speed skating originally was more recreational than anything else, but before long they were caught up in the mania associated with the West Allis rink in suburban Milwaukee. for years this was the only American rink of its kind, a fact that made the development of such US medalists as Miss Young, Anne Henning, Dan Immerfall, and Dianne Holum something of a phenomenon.

Dianne Holum now helps Peter Schotting coach the US team. Having worked closely with Eric for eight years, she is accutely aware of his capabilities. This is especially critical in speed skating, since coaches must help their skaters establish a winning pace.

Actually, Heiden has reached the point at which he can instinctively skate lap after lap in virtually the same time. This makes him hard to beat in the longer distances, where the tendency is to slow down as fatigue sets in. In the sprints, he just leaves the after-burners on all the way, hitting speeds of 35 m.p.h.

Schotting contends that this versality is akin to a runner excelling in races from 200 meters to several miles. The difference is that the runner must survive several heats in reaching the final, while a speed skater races only once at each distance.

Such discussions aside, the fact remains: No one is more golden on skates than Eric Heiden. And you can name your distance.

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