It has been a secret for months: the 1980 U.S. Olympic speed skating uniforms will be gold. What a morale raiser and motivator, what a compelling symbol of incipient triumph, right? Here, certainly, is a psychological weapon to demoralize the opposition and psych up the Americans to win. Well, not really. Perhaps for those of us who are armchair psychotherapists, romantics and other simplistic theoreticians of sport it would work. But not necessarily for speed skaters. And definitely not necessarily for the most golden skater of them all—Eric Heiden, the incredible young man from Madison, Wis. who is likely to leave Lake Placid with more gold medals than most national teams. For Eric, at least, the idea that there might be some magic in those golden threads isn't convincing. "It's always neat to get a new suit," he says. "I don't know that gold is any better than another color."
Good point, for the truth is that Heiden has won every speed skating race over the past three years wearing just about any color he has decided to put on. Indeed, one of the more celebrated news photos ever to run in the newspapers of Norway (where Heiden is almost as famous as the King himself) shows Eric and his U.S. teammates skating in their underwear—a prank they played after Heiden's third world championship.
The fact is, he needs to bring nothing to the rink but the splendor of his 6'1", 185-pound physique and the absolute steadiness of his psyche. Even when he is at rest, his great strength is almost palpable. His control over his strokes—be they swift, slashing explosions in a 500-meter sprint or mighty marathon strides in a 10,000—is as precise and as constant as if he were computerized. And his self-confidence is as inexorable as the flowing of a mighty river. Although just 21, Heiden isn't only the best speed skater racing today but also the best speed skater in history.
Even the experts in the sport marvel at him. Not long ago, Annie Henning, a gold and bronze winner in the 1972 Games in Sapporo, watched Heiden race at West Allis, Wis. "My God," she said as he made one of his patented sweeping grand tours of the rink. "I don't believe what I am seeing when I see Eric skate. He just isn't real. He maintains such unbelievable control over his body. If he happens to misjudge a little and runs down, he always has another little muscle somewhere in that big body where he can pull out whatever power he needs. He's as close to perfect as you can get." Terry McDermott, the winner of a gold medal in 1964 and a silver in 1968, says, "Eric is definitely the best who ever skated."
Heiden is expected to be just that at the Olympics at Lake Placid next week. He could well win five gold medals. That means a victory in every one of the men's events, to wit: 1) the 500, which takes no more than 40 seconds; 2) the slightly less explosive 1,000, in which Eric holds the world record of 1:13.60; 3) the middle-distance 1,500 at roughly 2:15; 4) the 5,000, which demands both endurance and hard driving, at about 8:20; and 5) the muscle-devouring event that is the speed skater's version of the marathon, the 10,000. That one lasts for an eternity of roughly 15 minutes.
If Heiden does win all his events at the Olympics, it will be a feat unprecedented among men. The Dutchman Ard Schenk, who at 6'2" was a sort of super-sized Hans Brinker, came close: he won three golds in four events at Sapporo. Only one person—the Soviet Wonder Woman, Lydia Skoblikova—ever swept an Olympic speed skating card; she won all four female events at Innsbruck in 1964. And now Heiden has mastered the entire spectrum. As McDermott says: "Eric is not a true, true sprinter. The 500 compares to a 200-meter dash in track: it takes stamina plus excellent speed, which requires a great amount of conditioning. Eric is magnificently conditioned. As for the long distances, I have never seen a skater maintain his technique and composure throughout the 5,000 and 10,000 the way he does. His lap times hold even or sometimes decrease as the race goes on. Other skaters' times increase by half or a full second per lap after a while, but Eric just is there skating 35s or 34s around and around the rink."
No one competing in any sport at Lake Placid has the potential for winning more gold than Eric Heiden. And the gold-suited American speed skating team could conceivably win more medals of all metals than any other national team in any other sport at Lake Placid—probably more than any entire U.S. Winter Olympic team has ever won in all sports combined in a single Games.
The best overall American total in the Winter Olympics (which were inaugurated in 1924) occurred at Lake Placid in 1932 when the U.S. team won an even dozen medals—six gold, four silver, two bronze. But U.S. speed skaters alone could come away from Lake Placid with as many as 16 or 17 medals in their nine (five men's, four women's) events. Among the likely medal winners besides Eric is his mite of a sister, Beth, 20, who has been almost as triumphant as Eric in her racing career. At a mere 5'2" by 106 pounds, she looks downright frail compared with many other women skaters, yet Beth was the 1979 all-round women's world champion (having won the 500,1,000,1,500 and 3,000). Beth is nearly certain to win a medal of some kind in two of the three longer events. And Leah Poulos Mueller, silver medalist in the 1,000 at Innsbruck '76 and current women's world sprint champion, could well bring home a gold in the 500 and the 1,000. What's more, there is a flock of other strong, eager, relatively new American women skaters who should add a silver here and a bronze there. As for the men, Peter Mueller (Leah's husband), who won a gold medal in the 1,000 at Innsbruck in 1976, is almost certain to earn a medal again in one or two events, and Dan Immerfall, a bronze medalist in the 500 in 1976, and Dr. Mike Woods, an expert at the long-distance events, should help, too.
This surfeit of riches is almost beyond belief in a sport that has fewer than 200 truly serious competitors in a nation which, until the Lake Placid speed skating oval was completed in 1978, had only one rink in all the land—that being the pollution-plagued course at West Allis, Wis. Yet, ever since Winter Olympiad I in Chamonix, France, when one Charlie Jewtraw of Lake Placid, N.Y. won the first gold medal in any winter sport (in the 500), U.S. speed skating teams have produced more glittering prizes than any American entry—32 medals in all, 11 of them gold.
Though it may seem both logical and predictable that Eric has come to be an authentic speed skating immortal, the fact is his ascendancy was at first a surprise. At 17 he had been a callow also-ran in the '76 Olympics (finishing seventh in the 1,500 and 19th in the 5,000) although he went on to place a creditable fifth in the overall world championship two weeks later. Then the next winter, it was suddenly Shazam! The young man with the face of a choirboy was transformed into Captain Marvel-Blades and won the overall men's world title in Heerenveen, The Netherlands, leading in standings from start to finish. It was a preposterous performance—an unheralded 18-year-old became the first American to hold this title since 1891 when one Joseph F. Donoghue from Newburgh, N.Y. became the first "declared" world champion.