In 1980 Eric Heiden won an unprecedented 5 gold medals in the Winter Olympic Games held in Lake Placid, New York. Paling only in comparison to the underdog achievements of the “Miracle on Ice” hockey team of the same Olympiad, Eric’s successes were even more notable because… they were expected. In the previous years, Eric had managed to win the world junior championships, the world all around championships (senior division) and the world sprint championships (senior division) all in the same year.
Talk about pressure – think Bode Miller, Marion Jones, Chad Hedrick. When was the last time the guy (or gal) expected to deliver it all actually mustered the breakthrough performances again and again and again to deliver in every event?
In the summer of that same year of 1980 I first met Eric sitting by the pool of a motel in San Diego where the U.S. national track cycling championships were being held and where I, at age 11, had just won my first national championship.
5 years later, I had been accepted to Stanford University – and also admitted to the school’s prospective freshman – “pro-fro” - program. Each student selected for this program was to fly out to the school and visit with someone within their preferred academic or athletic program. Lo and behold, Stanford hooked me up with the one and only Eric Heiden – a medical student working on his PHD as my “pro-fro” host.
The significance of this pairing was, embarrassingly, lost on me. I was a senior in high school, varsity in a couple sports, dating one of the prettier girls in school, and riding (like Eric) for 7-11 cycling team and was national speedskating champion the prior winter. I guess I thought I had it ‘going on’ though in my defense I don’t think I was cocky – just not exactly aware of the significance of my luck.
It didn’t occur to me that it might be odd and incredibly charitable for a 27 year old millionaire, 5 time gold medalist, cycling world champion and doctorate candidate at one of the world’s best medical schools to take on a skinny naïve high school kid from Michigan for a whole week. Even the fact that his girlfriend – an elegant blonde beauty from L.A. by the name of Tracy Kristofferson – was the daughter of a movie star and musician – even that escaped me.
The fact that he was so unassuming meant that I never got it – not until years later. Eric Heiden was a study in humility and success. When I arrived at his ‘cottage’ in the redwood forest above the Stanford campus on the appropriately named Upnuf Drive, the first thing I noticed was his stereo – Carver amp, pre-amp and some of the largest speakers I had ever seen. “The Drive” as I referred to it – that zig zag switchback approach to his house thousands of feet up above sea level we had to do daily in his Audi Quattro – left me sweating and terrified. Eric, as it turns out, doesn’t do much slowly..
After we settled in, his cat proceeded to pee on all my clean clothes – so Eric cheerfully washed them for me. I then waited what seemed like a polite interval and asked to see a gold medal.
He seemed perplexed at first and I was about to apologize and then he said, “Well, lets see… where are they…?” He dug around in the bowels of his closet on the floor for a minute or two, and then produced a sock – a heavy, dangling sock – and then shook it gently to extract its precious cargo – the solid gold of the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics’ gold medal. Back in the closet it went…
Over the next days we rode bikes, visited the Ritchey bike factory, went to movies, listened to music. Tracy – his girlfriend – was the coolest chick I had ever met and provided me with all kinds of Hollywood gossip I was able to take back to my friends. “Did you know George Michael was gay?” Stunning news in 1985. She also took me to town to see a movie (Eric joined us after an errand.) It felt kinda like a date and I ate it up – we saw “American Flyers” – one of only two movies about cycling ever to make the mainstream. This one starred Kevin Costner.
A couple days later and we went for mountain bike ride. I rode one of Eric’s spare Ritchey bikes and we met some of his buddies out for an ‘easy jaunt’. For Eric everything is easy. Its easy when you are not quite human. Just last summer (2007) Eric was out for a training ride with the national speedskating team. It was a long day full of climbs. There was a headwind on the way back, and Eric started taking a good portion of the pulls at the front to lead out the group and get them home. When friend Andy Gabel asked the 48 yr. old Heiden, “so, do you think you could have dropped them?” (the best of the best athletes in the country at the top of their game 25 years younger than you), he shrugged and mused, “yeah, probably…”
So on the morning of our ‘easy ride’ we pulled into the parking lot, and there are some of his buddies. Tom Ritchey, Chris Carmichael, Wayne Stetina and a few other top pro or ex-pro cyclists. Needless to say I got my ass handed to me on the ups – but they waited politely and we would then launch down the backsides of the trails where I held my own.
One night in particular helped to put Eric’s ‘hidden celebrity’ in stark contrast. Eric indicated he had an ‘errand’ (he was notoriously terse about things he had to do) so we drove out to Candlestick park. We got within about two miles of the stadium and then it was blocked off – there was a 49’ers game in progress and it was about to end, so all roads only led out. “Let’s trot” he said. “Trot” for you and I and other humans means one thing, “trot” for Eric Heiden means 5 and ½ minute pace.
I kept getting dropped and then we finally arrived at the fence surrounding the back side of the stadium – just as the game was getting out. One of the 49’er team managers came out to give Eric something (don’t recall what it was) and then out wandered Joe Montana to sign autographs – but he changed his direction to come say hello to Eric. At the top of his game, 1985, and he immediately changes course to greet Eric...Of course I didn’t really know much about Joe Montana at the time, so this was (again) lost on me.
Finally, it was time to fly home to Michigan. I distinctly remember the phone call home the night before my return flight. We had been so busy I hadn’t gotten around to calling home since my first day. Just as the question on the phone was voiced by my father, fear gripped me…
“So how’s campus? Did you get to watch any classes? How are the dorms?”
I suddenly realized we’d never quite made it over to Stanford. That confession was not met with much pleasure. But I promised to swing by Stanford in the morning on the way to the airport.
That was 22 years ago, but I remember much of it like it was yesterday – that’s how big an impact it truly had. What amazes me most, is that a 27 year old athletic hero deeply involved with school and businesses and on top of the world, would bother to give away a week to a skinny teenager he hardly knew.
Eric – thank you for that week and all the memories you helped create. You are a study in humility are truly a man to look up to.
(Here's a great article summarizing the accomplishments and media shunning habits of Mr. Heiden)