Where Observatory Road crests the hill near the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, there are wild grapevines growing among the sumacs. On this wet late autumn morning you can peer through the foliage onto the dull surface of Lake Mendota. Beside the water are the green expanses of the university's athletic fields. If you walk a bicycle path along the lakeshore, past a flock of bobbing coots and a row of little walnut trees, you come to a chain-link fence surrounding a running track. There is a young man on the grass beside the track. He is duck walking. His torso is bent forward nearly parallel to the earth, his hands are clasped over his coccyx, and he takes long, jolting steps, his outside arm swinging on the turns. He is dressed in blue nylon shorts, a long-sleeved rugby jersey, white socks and sturdy running shoes, the toes of which he drags along the turf with every recovery step. He moves in an oval, about 110 yards around. He has worn a groove, a dirt trail, in the thick sod. As he churns on, he makes noise. His heels thud sharply. His toes make a chewing sound on the crushed grass. His breath is expelled in steamy bursts.
The young man's name is Eric Heiden, and that shifty formula of genes and the world's prodding that makes some of us radiobiologists and some of us bass fishermen has made him a speed skater. The labor that he is doing now, in such contrast to the icy slide that is real speed skating, is called track skating. Each pounding lap of his little track takes about 30 seconds, roughly as long as he requires to negotiate a 400-meter rink on skates.
After 20 laps done in this agonizing fashion, Heiden rises and jogs, and you see his thighs, so thick that they rub together for half their length. He strikes one with the heel of his hand. "My back has gotten used to it," he says, "but it always gets me here. This isn't much fun." All he has done is warm up. Now he must simulate a 5,000-meter race, then a 1,500 and a 500, then do eight three-quarter-lap sprints. As he works through the 12� laps of the 5,000, a car rolls by on an adjacent road, the driver blinking at the sight of this solitary eccentric. In the 1,500, Heiden goes harder. He stumbles when finished, trying to rise. In the all-out 500, the sound of his passage is like a scythe.
His clothes lie nearby, an orange sweat shirt and Olympic blue sweat pants; also an Olympic team watch and an orange pack filled with calculus books. When he is done with his final intervals, he jogs for a few minutes, then draws on his sweats. Heiden has arresting eyes, clear even in fatigue. They are tawny, deepening to chestnut near the pupils, creating a sense of depth, as in fine burled hardwood. One front tooth is chipped, nicked by the skate of an opponent he body-checked in high school hockey. Heiden climbs the fence where he has left his bicycle.
"The fence is here because when a lot of young people were rioting in 1970 to protest the Vietnam war, they would have stolen the hurdles for fires," he says. There are a lot of fences in Madison dating from that year, and a lot of memories. "My grandfather used to be the director of intramural athletics," Heiden says, "and his office was below the ROTC office, a target of the protesters. Once they threw a Molotov cocktail into his window. Everything was burned, even pictures from when he was little." When Heiden speaks of the spring of 1970, it seems long ago and far away. This is because he was then 11 years old.
Last February, when Eric Heiden was 18, he entered the senior men's World Speed-Skating Championship at Heerenveen. The Netherlands. Heiden won the 500 meters, placed third in the 1,500 and ninth in the 5,000. That kind of fade—finishing farther back as the distance increases—is the traditional one for U.S. skaters. With only the 10,000 meters remaining, Heiden was still leading for the all-round title, but Norwegians Jan-Egil Storholt, the Olympic 1,500 champion, and Sten Stensen, the Olympic 5,000 champion, were close behind and seemed so superior at the distance that Heiden figured maybe he might place third. "Actually, I thought before the 10,000 I'd be lucky just to finish," he says. Since he skated after the Norwegians, he could calculate what he had to do to win. "I needed a 15:02.8. The coach set the splits; I'd try to hit for 15:03." Heiden's best previous time was 24 seconds slower.
Speed skaters race in pairs in Olympic style competition (as distinguished from the pack style often contested in the U.S.), alternating inside and outside lanes every lap to keep the distance equal. In the 10,000, Heiden was matched with The Netherlands' Piet Kleine, none other than the Olympic champion in the event. For mile after mile they skated together, their strokes coming in perfect unison. "It was like geese in flight," says Heiden's father. Then, incredibly, Heiden drove on ahead of Kleine, finishing in 14:59.02 and becoming the first American to win the world all-round championship. He skated a victory lap supporting a wreath more appropriately sized for a horse. "It was wet and heavy," he remembers now. "And I was delirious."
A week later, in Inzell, West Germany, Heiden won three of the four races in the World Junior (under 20) championship, easily taking the all-round title. A week after that, at Alkmaar, The Netherlands, he won the World Sprint championship (two 500s and two 1,000s) from teammate Peter Mueller and Evgeny Kulikov of the Soviet Union, thus becoming the first skater ever to sweep the three world championships in one year.
Unprecedented success has not changed Eric Heiden's life. He is a sophomore at Wisconsin, taking calculus, psychology and biology courses with the intention of pursuing a career in sports medicine. His coach is Dianne Holum, the 1972 Olympic champion for the women's 1,500 meters. As fall has turned to winter, she has put him through harder and longer workouts than ever in preparation for a defense of his titles. (Heiden has one more year of eligibility for the junior meet; he will not be 20 until June 14.)
Heiden is a muted, well-balanced youth, but because of his accomplishments and the extraordinary volume of his training, he stimulates thoughts on the nature of prodigies. The sudden attainment of something that others work lifetimes for—and don't get—what effect does that have on a person? More basically, what can account for such ability at such an age? In Heiden's case it seems possible to catalog a few shaping forces, beginning with something as broad as the tenor of his community and ending, finally, with the whispers of his own heart.