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Best ever? Heiden's feat holds up 30 years later

Even as he stepped on the ice for that final race in Lake Placid, looking unbeatable and with an unprecedented speedskating sweep in his grasp, Eric Heiden had those lingering doubts.

Would this be the day his thick legs finally failed him?

Could he muster enough strength to win the most grueling race of all?

The gun sounded. Heiden set off on 25 laps around the snowy outdoor track. Each time he passed the start-finish line, he felt stronger. And stronger. And when he started hearing the times, steadily coming in under world-record pace, he knew that fifth gold medal was his.

The rest of the 10,000 meters was just one long victory lap, the perfect capper to one of the greatest feats in Olympic history.

"I remember sitting in the locker room listening to the times," Heiden told The Associated Press this week. "I don't know that anybody had set a world record, but they were good times. I knew I would have to put in a good effort. In those long races, you sort of get into a rhythm and hope you get 'the feeling.' Some days, you really feel good. Other days, for unknown reasons, you just don't have it."

Heiden had it that day, crossing the line one last time more than six seconds faster than the previous world record. He had it for every race during those magical nine days at a hamlet in upstate New York, becoming the first Olympian ever to win five individual gold medals at a single games.

Heiden won the 500 — basically an all-out sprint. He won the 10,000 — an ordeal of stamina and willpower. He won at all three distances in between — 1,000, 1,500 and 5,000.

While two athletes — Soviet gymnast Vitaly Scherbo and American swimmer Michael Phelps — have matched Heiden's feat, that's done little to diminish the three-decades-old accomplishment of a guy still described by friends as nothing more than an aw-shucks Wisconsin cheesehead, who came with 27-inch thighs and a burning desire to be better than everyone else.

"I was just watching like everyone else," said Mike Plant, a teammate of Heiden's on the 1980 team, "realizing then and to this day just how special it was to win all five events. To me, it's the equivalent (of a track athlete) winning the 100 meters and winning the marathon."

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Heiden's feat certainly didn't come out of left field.

After finishing seventh and 19th in his two races at the 1976 Innsbruck Games, Heiden emerged at the sport's most dominant figure while still in his teens. He won the world sprint championship. He won the world all-around title. When it came time to make his plans for Lake Placid, he saw no reason why he shouldn't at least try to win gold in everything, even at the risk of spreading himself too thin.

"Probably a year before the Olympics, I made the commitment to really trying to compete in all five of 'em," Heiden said. "To be successful in all five, I thought that was a long shot. But I thought I had a good chance to win a medal in everything."

The most important race was probably his first, a one-and-a-quarter-lap sprint where he seemed most vulnerable. He was paired in the 500 with defending Olympic champion and world-record holder Yevgeny Kulikov, but the Soviet skater slipped a bit on a turn and Heiden pulled away to win by 34-hundreths of a second, setting the first of five Olympic records.

"That set the tone," he said. "That really gave me a lot of confidence."

The next day, Heiden finished more than a second ahead of the field in the 5,000. After a couple of days off, he won the 1,000 by a dominating 1.5 seconds. Two days later, Heiden caught a rut in the ice but didn't fall, going on to win the 1,500 for gold medal No. 4.

Finally, on Feb. 23, 1980, Heiden skated into Olympic history in the 10,000 by becoming the first skater ever to go under 14½ minutes.

"I knew with probably about seven or eight laps to go," he remembered. "At that point, the majority of the race is behind you. I knew that I was getting a great time and the end was in sight. As they say, the barn was in sight. I was almost there."

While the first race was the most important, the last one brought the biggest smile.

"I always felt the best skaters were the ones who skate the 10,000 meters. I thought that was the biggest challenge in the sport of speedskating," Heiden said. "It was a very satisfying thing coming across the line, knowing you had given it your all. I knew I had skated a very good race. It was hard to find any faults in that race."

It's also hard to see anyone duplicating Heiden's feat.

The sport has become increasingly specialized, with few skaters even attempting to compete in more than two or three Olympic events. Shani Davis had a shot at becoming the first American since Heiden to skate in all five individual events at the upcoming Vancouver Games but dropped the 10,000 — a decision that everyone understood, believing that training for the longest race might have cost him gold in his two best events, the 1,000 and 1,500.

"I don't think it's going to happen again," Heiden said. "There's just too much specialization. You can have a very successful career just being very good in one distance."

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Growing up in Wisconsin, Heiden played a variety of sports. Hockey might have been his favorite, but he decided around age 14 that speedskating was his best shot at doing something really special.

He put away his stick, with plenty of regret.

"I was a high school kid playing hockey, and that's a big sport in the Midwest," he said. "It was a hard decision to give up hockey for speedskating."

At Lake Placid, he was able to scratch a bit of his hockey itch. Unlike Phelps, who lived a rigid, secluded existence while winning eight gold medals in Beijing, Heiden saw no reason to lock himself away during his free time. Along with Plant, he attended all seven games played by the U.S. hockey team, a group of college-age kids who pulled off the "Miracle on Ice."

"He had played hockey," Plant said. "He had a real appreciation for it."

Heiden was in the crowd when the Americans shocked the powerful Soviet Union 4-3, even though he had to skate the 10,000 the next day. On the final morning of the games, he was in the stands again at the hockey rink, cheering the U.S. to its gold-clinching victory over Finland.

To this day, that game is Heiden's most enduring memory of Lake Placid outside of everything he did at the speedskating oval.

"I was hanging out right underneath the card table where Al Michaels and Ken Dryden were announcing the game," he said. "I was watching the game and listening to their call at the same time. It was really awesome."

For many, the "Miracle on Ice" overshadowed Heiden's unprecedented accomplishment, becoming the signature event of a games that should have belonged to Eric the Great. Most of the U.S. players went on to the pros. Their story was retold in a television movie and made it to the big screen in the 2004 flick "Miracle," extending its fame to a whole new generation of sports fans.

"He's very underrated because of the hockey team," said Derek Parra, a 2002 speedskating gold medalist and now all-around coach for the U.S. national team.

But fame was something that never meant a whole lot to Heiden. He retired from speedskating not long after Lake Placid, having turned down all but a handful of endorsement opportunities. He turned to new challenges, becoming a world-class cyclist and helping found a European-style team of American riders that went on to compete in the 1986 Tour de France.

In fact, Parra first became aware of Heiden as a cyclist.

"I grew up in Southern California. I didn't even know what snow was," Parra quipped. "By 1986, he had gone over to cycling. There was a race in Redlands, about 30 miles from where I grew up, and me and some friends of mine went to watch.

"Well, at the start of time trial, I see this guy. His legs are just ripped. His arms are just ripped. You can see the definition in his muscles. I'm like, 'Who is that guy?' And they tell me, 'That's Eric Heiden, the former speedskater.'"

Afterward, Parra found Heiden sitting alone on the front steps of a church. He introduced himself and the two talked a bit. Heiden gave the kid the number off his uniform, a treasured memento that Parra has kept to this day.

"I went home and looked up some information on Eric Heiden," he said. "I just knew he was an Olympic gold medalist. I didn't know he was a five-time gold medalist."

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Heiden carved out quite a life for himself after Lake Placid, even if he chose to shun the spotlight. After cycling, he returned to college and earned his medical degree from Stanford. He went into orthopedic surgery, a career that allowed him to stay close to sports, first as team doctor for the NBA's Sacramento Kings. He now serves the same role for U.S. Speedskating while running his own practice in Park City, Utah.

"I guess in a sense," Heiden said, chuckling, "I'm still hanging on."

Hardly. The married father of two young children, Heiden has lived a rich, full life since those nine days in Lake Placid, a worthy role model for athletes trying to figure out what path to take when the cheering stops.

"He didn't do it for the fame and fortune," Parra said. "He's one of the most down-to-earth guys I've ever known. He walks in a rink in Holland and people are in awe. He just laughs it off. ... He's gone far beyond that. He's gone back to school, become a surgeon and has his own practice. He's an amazing success story."

Chatting by phone while attending a hockey game for his 6-year-old son, Connor, Heiden was asked to provide some perspective to what he accomplished three decades ago.

"The longer that record stands, the more impressed I become with it," he said. "When I think about skating all those races, one of them 30-plus seconds and another that's nearly 15 minutes, well, there aren't many guys who can do that. It's pretty cool."