Mike Rowbottom @ITG

Forty years ago yesterday, a 21-year-old American sat in the stands at the Field House International Ice Rink in Lake Placid watching the United States ice hockey team achieve what would forever after be known as the 'Miracle on Ice' by defeating the Soviet favourites at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

His name was Eric Heiden. And the next day he completed his own miracle on ice as he secured a fifth and final speed skating gold medal at the Games to set an individual record that stands today and which many believe will not be broken.

In Going for Wisconsin Gold: Stories of Our State Olympians, Jessie Garcia presents the Heiden story in all its glory.

She details how the US Olympian, who had won the 1,500 metres event the day before, had come to watch two of his friends in the US team, Mark Johnson and Bob Suter, who were, like him, from the Wisconsin capital of Madison.

Heiden was so excited by the victory of a team of college players against effectively professional players seeking to earn a sixth successive Olympic gold for the Soviet Union that he struggled to sleep that night.

He woke up an hour and a half late the next morning and hurried to the Olympic Speed Skating Oval with a few pieces of bread in his hands to eat for breakfast. He then took six seconds off the world record in his last and most arduous event, the 10,000m.

Heiden had thus won the complete set of titles from the 500m sprint upwards.

In so doing he broke five Olympic records and one world record and became the first - and thus far only - athlete to bring home five individual gold medals in a single Winter or Summer Games.

Eric Heiden acknowledges his five speed skating victories at Lake Placid 1980 in a post-Games press conference ©Getty Images
Eric Heiden acknowledges his five speed skating victories at Lake Placid 1980 in a post-Games press conference ©Getty Images

His compatriot Mark Spitz had returned from the Munich Olympics eight years earlier with seven golds, but three of those were in relays.

Heiden won more golds in one Olympics than the entire US team had done in any Winter Games since 1932.

Now that athletes specialise between short or long distances in speed skating, it is a feat unlikely ever to be repeated in the sport. Or sport in general.

Heiden had chances in all five of the available events - although even he did not anticipate securing a clean sweep.

He was, nevertheless, one of the main home medal hopes at the Games along with his sister and fellow speed skater Beth, who is 15 months younger than him.

As young teenagers they started training at the Wisconsin Olympic Oval, 75 miles east of their family home. Garcia documents how that meant a regular routine of school, homework in the car, and skating in the evening. They were coached by Dianne Holum, the double Olympian who had won the 1,500m at Sapporo 1972.

Heiden’s legs became so big he had to buy size 38 trousers even though he had a 32-inch waist.

Having made the US Olympic team for the Innsbruck 1976 at the age of 17 - he finished 19th in the 5,000m event - Heiden went on to win the World Junior Speed Skating Championships in 1977 and 1978 and also took both World Allround Championships and World Sprint Championships gold in 1977, 1978 and 1979.

In 1979, Beth, who had also competed at the Innsbruck Winter Olympics at the age of 16 - finishing 11th in the 3,000m - added the women’s world allround title to the world junior title she had won the year before.

So by the time Lake Placid Olympics came around, the Heidens were big news. Eric was pictured on the front cover of Time and Sports Illustrated magazines wearing a skin-tight, golden, body-length Lycra speed-skating suit.

Heiden claims the first of his five golds, over 500m, at the Lake Placid 1980 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images
Heiden claims the first of his five golds, over 500m, at the Lake Placid 1980 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images

Heiden’s gold rush began on February 15 in the 500m event. He won in an Olympic-record time of 38.03sec from world record holder Yevgeny Kulikov of the Soviet Union, who was 0.34 slower, and Lieuwe de Boer of The Netherlands, who was at +0.45.

Heiden’s mark replaced the Olympic best of 39.17 that had been set by Kulikov in 1976 in Innsbruck.

The following day, the 21-year-old phenomenon went to the other end of the scale to win the 5,000m in an Olympic-record time of 7min 02.29sec, with Norway’s world record holder Kay Arne Stenshjemmet taking silver at +0.99 and his Norwegian colleague Tom Erik Oxholm earning bronze at +3.30.

On February Feb 19, Heiden - who had set a 1,000m world record of 1:13.60 in Davos the month before the Games began -  lived up to his billing as favourite for this event as he won gold number three.

His time of 1:15.18 beat the Olympic record of 1:19.32 set in 1976 by compatriot Peter Mueller.

Canada’s Gaétan Boucher took silver, exactly a second and a half adrift, while bronze went to the Soviet Union’s Vladimir Lobanov at +1.73.

On February 21, another victory was secured in the 1,500m, an event in which he had also set a world record in Davos the previous month when he clocked 1:55.44.

He extraordinarily produced exactly the same time to claim another Olympic record along with the gold medal.

Norwegian athletes took silver and bronze, with Stenshjemmet and Terje Andersen finishing at +1.37 and +1.48 respectively.

And Heiden’s bread-fuelled exploits the day after the Miracle on Ice earned him a world-record time of 14:28.13, shattering the mark of 14:34.33 set three years earlier by the Soviet Union’s Viktor Lyoskin, who finished seventh.

Silver went to Piet Kleine of The Netherlands, who was 7.90 adrift of Heiden’s time, with Oxholm claiming bronze at +8.46.

Sadly for Beth an ankle injury undermined her performances at the Games, although she claimed a bronze in the women’s 3,000m.

But she earned two golds before 1980 was out - both in cycling, where she was winner of the US National Road Race Championships and then the Road World Championships.

Eric and Beth Heiden in their US speed skating kit ©Getty Images
Eric and Beth Heiden in their US speed skating kit ©Getty Images

Reflecting on her brother’s performance in Lake Placid, Beth - by now Beth Heiden Reid - told Tom Graham of the San Francisco Chronicle:

"To come back each time for five races with your head together, to step out on the ice five times, to be mentally and physically ready and to successfully execute a good race is really amazing.

"I can't imagine that anybody will ever be able to do that again."

US Olympian Bill Rodgers, who won the New York and Boston marathons four times each, commented in the aftermath of Heiden’s victories:

“What Heiden is doing is comparable to a guy winning everything from the 400m to the 10,000m on the track. My God! It is doing the impossible!”

Meanwhile the coach of the Norwegian team was succinct: “We just hope he retires.”

Heiden did indeed retire before the end of the year, finishing his career - or rather, that particular part of his career - with a silver medal at the World Allround Championships.

That year, he won the Sullivan Award as the top American amateur athlete.

The signs that Heiden might be seeking challenges further afield had been there even in Lake Placid.

Shortly after securing his fifth Olympic victory, Heiden had told the Washington Post that his five golds would “probably sit where the rest of them are - in my mom’s dresser, collecting dust. Gold, silver and bronze isn’t special. It’s giving 100 per cent and knowing you’ve done the best you can.”

He added he had thought he could realistically have won one or two medals, not five, and certainly not all gold.

His home success prompted a huge swirl of media and commercial interest, as Garcia writes: “He began calling the media blitz around him ‘the Big Whoopee’ and said it was all ‘kind of a drag’, adding: ‘I liked it better when I was a nobody.’”

Among the many offers he turned down was one for him to be on boxes of Kellogg's Corn Flakes.

"I had offers to endorse everything from cameras to soda pop," he told Graham. The three sponsors he said yes to were all related to the new sport to which he was already turning his attention - cycling. He represented 7-Eleven, sponsors of the US men’s cycling team, Schwinn, which provided bikes for the team, and Descente apparel, which made speed skating and cycling suits.

Heiden was persuaded to take up cycling seriously by a longtime friend, Jim Ochowicz, who had competed at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics and went on to coach the US team at Sydney 2000.

He was so good that he was named as a reserve for the US team ahead of the Moscow 1980 Olympics - although as things turned out the opportunity never arose as the US boycotted the Games as a response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Heiden received the Korbel Lifetime Achievement Award at the House of Blues in Hollywood for his contributions to cycling in the US ©Getty Images
Heiden received the Korbel Lifetime Achievement Award at the House of Blues in Hollywood for his contributions to cycling in the US ©Getty Images

Before President Jimmy Carter confirmed that controversial course of action, Heiden had told reporters during a post-Olympics reception at the White House: “I hope we don’t boycott. The winter athletes in general just don’t feel that a boycott is the right thing.”

In 1985, Heiden won the US Professional Cycling Championships and finished the Giro d’Italia. The following year he was part of the first American team to ride in the Tour de France, but he sustained concussion after a fall in the 18th stage and his cycling career effectively ended at that point.

By that point he was already engaged in what he regarded as the main track of his career, having earned a Bachelor of Science degree at Stanford University in California before going on to study medicine.

Once qualified in 1991, Heiden became an orthopaedic surgeon - just like his father,  Jack. He specialised in sports medicine.

He has worked widely in basketball, holding the position as team physician for the Sacramento Kings and Sacramento Monarchs in the National Basketball Association and Women’s National Basketball Association respectively.

His patients have included basketball greats such as Charles Barkley, and he has also acted as physician for the US cycling and speed skating teams.

At the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, he helped the speed skater who was being touted as "the next Eric Heiden" - although in short track skating - Apolo Ohno.

After the US skater hit the deck in the last-bend pile-up that famously allowed Australia’s Steven Bradbury to coast through to the 1,000m gold from the back, Heiden put several stitches into a gash he had sustained in his leg. Four days later, Ohno took 1,500m gold.

Asked by Graham what he regarded as his greatest achievement, Heiden responded: "It would be easy to say what I did at the Olympics. Speed skating was fun, but I didn't look at it as my life's work. But medicine is."

A number of American Olympic champions, including Heiden, had been asked to participate in the ceremonies for Salt Lake City 2002, but Heiden declined after he was passed over for the honour of lighting the Olympic Torch - in favour of the Miracle on Ice team.

It was a decision which earned him widespread disapprobation in the US press at the time.

Heiden, right, was honoured at the Salt Lake City 2002 Games by film-maker Bud Greenspan, left, as one of the 10 greatest Winter Olympians of all time ©Getty Images
Heiden, right, was honoured at the Salt Lake City 2002 Games by film-maker Bud Greenspan, left, as one of the 10 greatest Winter Olympians of all time ©Getty Images

Reflecting upon it later, Heiden said: "I was probably just too stubborn. I figured if they don’t appreciate what I did as a skater, if they don’t appreciate now what I am doing as a human being, I’d just as soon hang out with my buddies and watch it. I did not mean to slight the Olympic hockey team in any way.”

In the course of those Winter Olympics, Heiden was honoured as one of the 10 best Winter Olympians ever by film-maker Bud Greenspan, who presented an eight-minute film of his achievements.

In 1999, Heiden had been voted "Winter Olympian of the Century" by the Associated Press, and placed 63rd in ESPN SportsCenter's countdown of the 100 greatest athletes of the 20th Century.

"What he accomplished will never be done again, period," said five-times Olympic speed skating gold medallist Bonnie Blair, who won her medals over the span of three Olympics in 1988, 1992 and 1994.

Meanwhile, Heiden’s friend Dan Jansen, the 1994 Olympic 1,000m gold medallist, added: "He had a huge impact on my career. He was probably the reason that I stayed with skating. I was 14 when I saw what Eric did in 1980... 

"I don't think anyone will ever do that again. It was simply the greatest feat in Olympic history."