Tuesday, January 18, 2022
HomeInterviewsEric Heiden - American Hero in Two Sports

Eric Heiden – American Hero in Two Sports

Olympic medalist and record setting ice-skater turned professional cyclist Eric Heiden was a US hero that burst on the cycling scene with the iconic 7-Eleven team. We caught-up with Eric at his home in Utah to hear all about his move from ice to tarmac and all his successes.

-

Lake Placid, USA 1980 and the XIII Winter Olympics. The Man of the Games? With his 32” waist and 27” thighs clad in that famous gold suit, the very epitome of power and grace there could only be one; Eric Heiden.

The man from Madison Wisconsin won all five gold medals in the long track speed skating over distances from 500 meters to 10,000 meters setting five Olympic and one world record in the process. That 10,000 meters record was just one of 15 he set during his speed skating career, not to mention seven senior world championships.

And he wasn’t a bad cyclist either, part of the now legendary red white and green of the 7-Eleven team. Taking the first US PRO Championship and riding the Worlds, Giro and Tour. Thanks go to friend of VeloVeritas Mike Engleman who connected us with Eric at his home in Park City, Utah.

You dominated the long track speed skating at Lake Placid in 1980 but you also skated at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck where you were 7th in the 1500 meters and 19th in the 5,000 meters – was that the inspiration for Lake Placid?

“I set myself goals and a big one was to make the ’76 Olympic squad – I was satisfied with that, but I lost perspective just being happy to have made the team.

“It was different at Lake Placid in 1980, there were no distractions; I was there to do business.”

Eric Heiden
Lake Placid 1980 Winter Olympics and Eric Heiden was victorious, with five gold medals. Photo©Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated via Getty

You broke 15 world records during your career, is there one which gives you particular satisfaction?

“The 10,000 meters at the Olympics, that was special, beating all the best guys at that distance and taking the world record by almost six seconds.”

It’s not so well known that you were also a multiple world champion on the ice.

“It’s known within the skating community but skating isn’t so well known by the general public outside the Olympics.

“I’m proud of those world championships performances up against the best guys in the world.”

At Lake Placid you won sprint and endurance medals – 500 to 10,000 meters, not easy.

“They all require different physiology, yes.

“You’re looking at just over 30 seconds for the 500 up to nearly 15 minutes for the 10,000 – when I look back I’m more impressed at what I did, especially in the 10,000.

“Back then guys were starting to specialise, but are doing so much more now.”

But you never seemed comfortable with the fame?

“I always struggled with that side of things but it was to my advantage, it opened a lot of doors for me, when I was studying to be a doctor the doors to the best colleges opened for me.

“So I guess I did well on the coattails of fame.”

Was cycling a part of your training for skating?

“A big part.

“There were no 400 meters rinks for me to train on in the summer so I’d work out on the bike two or three times each week and I did have it in my head that I’d like to be a pro bike rider one day.”

Eric Heiden
Eric Heiden heading for another Olympic gold medal.

And I have to ask – the gold suit?

“A year or two ago I got a letter from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex.

“They asked me if I’d be prepared to let them exhibit it and I was very honored to accommodate them.”

And you’re still involved with the skating world as the US team physician.

“I went to the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia with the team, but now I’ve stepped back a little and act as a consultant – I’m always available to speak to if they need to.”

Eric Heiden
Eric Heiden rode Grand Tours with 7-Eleven.

The 7-Eleven team and a pro biker career?

“I was lucky in that I knew Jim Ochowicz who’s now team manager with the CCC World Tour team, he was speed skater and racing cyclist and manager of the US skating team.

“We’d discussed the fact that he was putting a team together sponsored by 7-Eleven and as my skating career came to a close I wanted to be part of his new team.”

No amateur career then, straight in as a professional?

“As a skater I had ridden local and state races at amateur level but with 7-Eleven I was able to pursue my dreams of being a professional cyclist.”

How were you accepted by the professional bike riders?

“They took me in and welcomed me with open arms; many of them knew me from my local and state races. There was a lot of cross-over between skating and cycling in those days.”

Can you remember your first professional race?

“It was probably a criterium on the east coast, nothing special but I had a lot of respect for those guys so I would have been nervous.

“And I had to handle a lot of expectation from the crowd, they think that because you’re a champion skater you’ll be able to ride away from these guys – that was hard to live up to.”

In ’85 you won the US Pro Championship beating Jesper Worre and Jens Veggerby – handy guys – so you weren’t a bad rider by any means.

“I worked hard and was in good shape, my role was that of a helper that day but the break I was in stayed away and I took my opportunity.”

Eric Heiden
Eric Heiden was a big guy for a bike rider.

You rode The Worlds?

“Yeah, I rode the pro pursuit in Brno, Czechoslovak