How Dr. Eric Heiden earned place among America's greatest athletes

February 10, 2017, 11:51 AM

— -- When entering Heiden Orthopedics in Park City, Utah, some patients are unaware of all that the facility's namesake has achieved, or even his most famous feat. Then again, it's been 37 years since the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, there are not many photos of him in the clinic, and Dr. Eric Heiden has never been the sort to brag.

"You would never know what Eric's accomplished unless someone tells you because he would never bring it up," four-time Olympic speedskater KC Boutiette said. "Then when most people find out, he's a little uncomfortable and just says, 'Yup, yeah, uh-huh, that was me, it was pretty cool.' But that's the kind of guy Heiden is."

Thus, if they are going to learn of his past, it often will be via friends or internet searches.

"I will have a patient I will see and take care of them and have a planned treatment and I will say, 'Come back after six weeks and we'll start with this,'" Heiden said. "And six weeks later they will be back and say, 'Hey! I looked you up!' Or, 'I told my friends I was seeing so and so, and they [told me about you]. I did not know you won five gold medals in the Olympics.'"

With the speedskating competition at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang starting one year from Friday, it's a good time to spread the word about Heiden's amazing legacy -- as an Olympian and beyond.

Heiden became arguably the greatest athlete in Winter Olympics history -- Michael Phelps on ice, if you will -- with his staggering performance in speedskating in Lake Placid. He remains the only Winter Olympian to have claimed five gold medals in a single Games, winning each of his sport's five events in Olympic-record times, including a world record in the 10,000 meters.

"It took me three Olympics to do what he did in one week," said American icon Bonnie Blair, who won five speedskating gold medals during the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Olympics. "He was a man before his time. He is, to me, still the greatest."

And not just in skating. As incredible as those five medals are, Heiden accomplished so much more that he should be considered among the greatest and most important athletes in American history.

After retiring from speedskating after the 1980 Olympics, Heiden briefly played hockey in Norway. Then he went into cycling, winning a U.S. road championship and competing in the Tour de France. And then he earned a medical degree at Stanford, becoming an orthopedic surgeon specializing in knee and shoulder injuries. He was the team physician for the Sacramento Kings for years and works with the U.S. speedskating and cycling teams.

A five-time gold medalist. A hockey player. A Tour de France rider and United States Bicycling Hall of Famer. A doctor who has provided treatment for athletes ranging from Olympians to Chris Webber. Match that, Phelps. Or Usain Bolt. Or Carl Lewis. Or, well, just about anyone.

As Jim Ochowicz said: "There is a lot there with Eric Heiden."

Ochowicz, president of the BMC Racing cycling team and a former cyclist and speedskater himself, has known Heiden for decades, having managed him in both cycling and skating.

"He's a gifted athlete who could have chosen any number of sports and probably been equally successful as he was in speedskating and then in cycling," Ochowicz said. "He's got a very strong character along with that great talent and a great work ethic. I know he never missed a workout.

"Along with that strong will and great dedication, you really have to have to think of Eric as a fun guy to be around and with a sense of humor. And someone who really embraces the group he's with and brings them to a higher level."

So what does Heiden say of his many achievements when they are brought up to him in person?

"Yeah, I've had a good life. Can't complain," he said. "I've been lucky, and I think I appreciate it, too. When I look back, I keep pinching myself and saying, 'I've had some great opportunities, and I think I've made some wise decisions.'"

HEIDEN GREW UP in Madison, Wisconsin, which is infamous for its sub-zero winters, playing many sports, including soccer and tennis. But he was best on the ice, learning to skate and play hockey on the frozen lake by his grandparents' home. He actually started out as a figure skater, but he wasn't as interested in the sport's jumps and twists as in just skating around the rink. So he went into speedskating.

With his natural ability and the superb instruction of coach Dianne Holum, Heiden first made the U.S. Olympic team at just 17 years old in 1976. His best finish at the Innsbruck Games was seventh, but he quickly advanced to the top of his sport, winning the world all-around championship each of the next three years.

"I was physically gifted," Heiden said, "and I had the ability to mentally push myself to the limit. ... Because if you're racing the clock, it comes down to suffering. The guy who's going to win is the guy who suffers the most."

Suffering? As part of his intense training, Heiden would hold 300-pound weights and do 300 knee squats. After taking a 20-minute or so break he would do another 300 squats. His thighs were a massive 29 inches around, nearly matching his 32-inch waistline.

Heiden's best times fall well short of today's records, but that's due to changes in the sport. In his era, speedskating usually was on outside rinks in all kinds of weather, using fixed skates rather than today's more efficient clap skates. "I don't know if the skaters today quite understand the significance of what Eric did back in his day because most skaters don't or will not ever skate outside or deal with the elements of wind, snow or rain," Boutiette said.

So what Heiden accomplished at the 1980 Olympics at age 21 remains extraordinary. He won the 500. And the 1,000. And the 1,500. And the 5,000. And then the 10,000.

Add his younger sister Beth's speedskating bronze medal in the 3,000 meters, and the Heiden family accounted for half of America's 12 medals at the third Winter Games contested on U.S. soil. Eric was the only American to win individual gold at in Lake Placid, and if he had competed as his own country, the Republic of Heiden would have placed third among all nations in victories.

"I couldn't have skated much better," Heiden said, adding later with a laugh, "I kicked everybody's ass."

Nonetheless, what most people know best from those Games is the Miracle on Ice U.S. hockey team. Even Heiden says his fondest memories from Lake Placid are watching the Americans beat the Soviets and go on to win the gold medal. After all, hockey was his favorite sport and he had played with U.S. team members Mark Johnson and Bob Suter while growing up in Madison.

Heiden attended the game against the Russians and was so amped by the U.S. victory that it took a long time to get to sleep that night. That was a problem, because he had to skate the 10,000 the next morning. Heiden always made certain to be at the rink two hours before a race. That day he overslept and was awakened around 90 minutes before his race. He rushed out, ate some toast, arrived at the rink -- and broke the world record by 6.2 seconds.

"As a younger skater, I kind of thought it was pretty cool what he did at Lake Placid," Blair said. "But as I started training and did more, it became much more amazing. That's when I really got it. What he did will never be done again."

And probably not what he did afterward, either.

HAVING ACCOMPLISHED virtually everything he could in speedskating, Heiden retired from the sport soon after Lake Placid and concentrated on his other goals. He went to Oslo to play part of the season with the Manglerud Star hockey team -- "I just wanted to get that out of my system" -- and then went into cycling.

Cycling had long been a part of Heiden's offseason cross-training program for skating. He also was very good at it. He was a key member of the 7-Eleven cycling team when it started in 1981, raced in the 1985 Giro d'Italia and won the 1985 U.S. road championship. Unfortunately, he suffered a terrible crash in the 1986 Tour de France on a Stage 18 descent when he shot through a 180-degree blind turn.

"I hit a guardrail going probably 40 mph. Ka-boom!" he said. "And I go off a 30-foot embankment and land at the bottom of it. Ka-bam!"

Heiden suffered a concussion but still got back on the bike and was determined to finish the race until Ochowicz and team doctor Max Testa stopped him.

"He apparently had a concussion, but when we showed up in the car, he was already up and going and didn't want to stop," Testa said. "We had to make him stop and spend the night in a hospital. But until the last minute, he didn't want to stop. He was zigzagging on the bike. He wanted to make it to Paris. It was really hard to stop him."

After Heiden crashed again in the Tour of Colorado, he left cycling and focused on his medical career. He went into orthopedics to follow the footsteps of his father and because of the athletic connection. "I realized that orthopedics was a good profession to get into because you can still stay involved in sports," he said.

Indeed. During summer breaks from medical school, Heiden worked with Testa at the Tour de France. Testa says Heiden helped him a lot during the Tour -- "He knew the riders and he could see things they couldn't see" -- and also afterward when they partnered together for a number of years. Said Testa: "He helped me be a better doctor."

WITH HIS GOOD HUMOR, friendly manner and surgical skills, Heiden is a bit like Dr. Aaron Conners, the Bill Hader character who treats LeBron James and Amar'e Stoudemire in the movie "Trainwreck." Except Dr. Conners never won a gold medal or rode in the Tour de France.

The Heiden Orthopedics website shows a photo of Eric wearing surgical garb while posed with a bicycle (but no skates). Now age 58, with graying hair and much thinner thighs, Heiden is still in great shape. He says he doesn't run anymore because of knee issues, but he still skates occasionally and bikes often. He enjoys cycling and knows pedaling is good for the joints.

After being based in Sacramento, where he worked with the Kings as well as UC Davis athletics, Heiden now works out of his clinic in Park City with several orthopedic doctors, including his wife, Karen.

"He's a very dedicated surgeon who works long hours and really cares about his patients," Testa said. "I still haven't found a weak side in him."

Heiden is so regarded for his background and sports medicine knowledge that he was the opening keynote speaker at the 2016 Sports Biometrics Conference in San Francisco.

"Eric has a special approach to the patients' needs," Testa said. "And I think that comes from his experience as an athlete. He really tries everything nonsurgical until it's proven that it's not working. That makes him really unique. I tell patients when they're facing two surgeons and one recommends surgery and one doesn't recommend surgery, I say, 'Go see Eric Heiden.'"

While he might not push patients recovering from ACL surgery to do 300 squats with a 300-pound weight, Heiden says that his sports career provides him with a broad picture when dealing with injured athletes.

"They appreciate the fact you've been around sports and I've been successful at it," he said. "So as a consequence, they have a lot of confidence in your abilities and how you're taking care of them."

Heiden says his approach to surgery has similarities to what it was in speedskating. As a skater, he would completely visualize a race from beginning to end, going over every step of a race and imagining almost every second in his mind, including taking off his bodysuit. He will do the same before a surgery, spending the previous night visualizing the procedure "from A to Z or step 1 to 100."

"Sport has taught me a lot," Heiden said. "It's taught me a lot about how to treat patients, really understanding the stresses of being an athlete and the issues they are dealing with."

Among those issues are ulnar collateral ligament injuries in the elbows of young pitchers that require Tommy John surgery. Baseball was not a sport he followed much while growing up, but he has gotten more into the game because his teenage son Connor is a promising ballplayer at the youth level who played in the USA Baseball National Team Identification Series (he also snowboards).

Based on his father's record, Connor very well could become a big leaguer who wins five World Series rings, though each July he would face the difficult choice between playing in the All-Star Game or riding the Tour de France. But if he suffers an arm or knee injury, well, there definitely is someone he knows who can treat it.

Regardless, hopefully many more people will know who that person is and just how much Dr. Eric Heiden has accomplished.