Fit to Play with Jim Johnson: Eric Heiden still the greatest speed skater

  • Jim Johnson

Published: 2/14/2022 7:51:18 PM
Modified: 2/14/2022 7:49:27 PM
(Editor’s Note: This is the first column from Jim Johnson that will focus on sports, exercise and sports medicine.)

Like many people across America on February 23, 1980, my eyes were fixed on the television as Eric Heiden lined up for his final race of the Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. And like many, my eyes filled with tears as I watched this magnificent athlete churn around the oval for 10,000 meters. Lap after lap went by as we counted the time. Eric was tired; in the past nine days he had raced more times than he could remember. Rather than rest the night before he cheered the U.S. ice hockey team composed of college boys as they beat the USSR. Eric overslept and rushed out with a slice of bread to race his final race.

At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Eric looked like a lot of Olympic athletes. That was, until you looked at his legs: 27 inches around — enough for two small people. Those legs were even more imposing in the skintight suits all skaters wore. Swimmers and runners use their arms and legs, but legs are the propulsive force in speed skating. Such big legs are normally reserved for sprinters, but here was Eric competing in the finals of an endurance event. Like a bumblebee, no one had told Eric he couldn’t fly.

And fly he did. Not only did he win the 10,000, he broke the world record. Eric started the competition nine days earlier with a victory in the 500 against the world record holder from the Soviet Union. He then won the 5,000, the 1,000, and the 1,500. We held our breaths as he tripped in the 1,500 but recovered to win. He attributes his ice hockey training to his quick recovery. He finished the 1980 games with five gold medals, in addition to four Olympic and one world record.

In speed skating, there is only one activity — skating different distances — head down, body bent in half, legs screaming, back muscles straining. Michael Phelps won more medals, but in swimming there are four different events plus relays. Women’s gymnastics has four events and men have six. And consider the vast difference in the events. The 10,000 meter race is 20 times the distance of the 500. Michael Phelps’ longest race was the 400. He would have to race in the 8,000 meter (one that doesn’t even exist) to match Eric. Usain Bolt’s longest race was the 200 meters. Imagine Bolt lining up in the finals of the 5,000 meters to face the top runners in the world.

Exercise scientists are pressed to explain how Eric could not only succeed, but win in events that made such vastly different demands. It took Eric about 37 seconds to complete the 500 but over 14 minutes to complete 10,000 meters. The 500 is a dash, using almost exclusively fast twitch muscle fibers and anaerobic sources. The 10,000 is an aerobic event, placing huge demands on the heart, lungs, and slow twitch muscle fibers. We can measure all kinds of variables in laboratories today like oxygen consumption, lactic acid concentration, and blood glucose, but we have yet to come up with a measure to quantify courage.

What was Eric thinking when he lined up for the 10,000? There was immense pressure; no one had ever accomplished five speed skating goals in one Olympics. Did he dream of winning as he raced, think of the glory? Eric did none of this. Elite racers focus on exactly how they feel, rationing their resources so there is nothing left at the end. As Eric raced around the oval his leg muscles told him to stop; his back muscles wanted him to stand up. But he took all that into consideration and did what he did best, he sped up and broke the world record.

Dave Kindred of the Washington Post wrote that Eric was the first man to turn ice into gold. Upon completion of the Games, everyone wanted him; he was invited to pitch everything from Aspirin to yogurt. He accepted a couple of offers but declined the rest. He wasn’t interested in fame or money. “I have enough money. If I wanted fame I would have played ice hockey.”

Following the Games Eric tried his hand at cycling, another sport where you are bent in half with legs pumping. He had success, especially on the short track, but eventually decided to return to school at Stanford, completing medical school in 1991. As we watch the great skaters this year, remember that the “Man of Gold” won more gold metals in 1980 than Finland, Norway, Canada, West Germany, Italy, and France combined. He is considered the greatest speed skater of all times. No skater before or since has ever accomplished this feat.

Jim Johnson is a retired professor of exercise and sport science after teaching 52 years at Smith College and Washington University in St. Louis. He comments about sport, exercise, and sports medicine.

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