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The odds are stacked fairly heavily against one family's producing two world champions, especially two that reign simultaneously, like speed skaters Eric and Beth Heiden. Not that there is much surface resemblance.
Eric, 20, a pre-med student at the University of Wisconsin, slouches when he stands, perhaps reflecting years of crouching in a skating stance. Beth, 19, a sophomore majoring in civil engineering at Wisconsin, wouldn't dream of slouching. At 5'2", a foot short of brother Eric, she needs every inch she can rally. Eric's eyes are brown and his hair is dark and wavy. Beth's eyes are green and her dark blonde hair hangs straight, topping a 99-pound frame tiresomely referred to as pint-sized.
Eric's cheeks, while not gaunt, are definitely hollow—he once stuffed them with 52 dried prunes, 26 to a side. Beth's cheeks are right out of Disney's Chip 'n' Dale. Off the ice, he is soft-spoken and gentlemanly; she is a bubbly sprite, full of the devil. But they are far more akin than these differences would indicate. Inside, they burn to win.
On Feb. 4, at The Hague, Beth took the world all-round title, winning all four events at distances from 500 to 3,000 meters. On Feb. 11 in Oslo, Eric swept to the world overall title for the third straight year, winning all four men's events—500, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000—as well as setting a world record for total points. And then, since speed skating tends to repeat itself, they both turned up in Inzell, West Germany, last weekend for the world sprint championships.
Eric had won the men's sprint title the last two years. In 1978 Beth won the world junior all-round and finished second in the women's sprints at Lake Placid to Lubov Sadchikova of the Soviet Union. In Inzell Beth handled Sadchikova with no problem. Unfortunately, however, she had to contend with one of her own teammates. Leah Poulos Mueller, the silver medalist in the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics, came out of an 18-month layoff to win the world sprint title for the second time.
The championships are spread over two days, with a 500- and a 1,000-meter race each day. Mueller won both 500s and finished fourth and fifth in the 1,000s. She had been training in Inzell for six weeks with her husband and teammate, Peter Mueller. A sprint specialist, she had not competed in the women's world meet at The Hague. "I was wondering how good Beth was," Mueller said afterward. "I expected to beat her in the 500. I'm a technique skater and she's more of a strength skater. But it's the unknown you're afraid of."
As it turned out, strength skater Beth won both 1,000s, lowering her personal best by half a second on Sunday with a 1:25.61. Added to a seventh and fifth in the 500s, the result produced a silver medal.
But Beth was already the all-round champion, and anything won at the sprints was so much frosting. She had been saying all week that she would be thrilled just to get a medal, protesting that she was not a sprinter and had no business being the favorite, world champion or not. Besides, there was Eric to carry on the family honor and all that. Which, sure as hometown Madison is the capital of Wisconsin, he did.
Eric Heiden simply does not lose any more in world competition, regardless of distance, as he proved at Inzell by annihilating the field in both the 500 and 1,000. On Saturday, he tied his own world record in the 1,000 with a 1:14.99, despite stumbling and having to steady himself with his left hand to keep from falling. His 1,000 on Sunday, which was raced in a driving snowstorm, was .08 of a second slower; his winning times in the 500 were 38.17 and 38.23.
The races at Inzell produced Eric's eighth world title in eight tries in the last three years—two juniors, three seniors and three sprints. He has become the Secretariat of speed skating, winning his races by unheard-of margins. When Heiden was at the world meet in Oslo, where speed skating is a mania, he appeared on the front pages every day. He was hustled about like a rock star, and had to sneak out through hotel garages to avoid his admirers. U.S. Ambassador Louis Lerner hopped on the bandwagon by appointing Heiden honorary sports ambassador to Norway.