Eric Heiden arrived at Lake Placid as a national hero and favourite to win all five men’s speed skating events. In the four years since he had appeared on the scene from nowhere as a callow 17-year-old, he had pulled off a shock World Championship victory in 1977 and successfully defended the title twice.
Expectations were high. And the man dubbed Mr Universe on account of his sculpted physique – he had to have a specially tailored Stars and Stripes suit made for the Opening Ceremony thanks to his 29-inch thighs – didn’t disappoint. The modest, unassuming athlete won a clean sweep of every race from the 500m to 10.000m – incredibly, recording an Olympic record in each tournament.
Heiden’s weakest race was the 500m, and his prospects didn’t look good when he was paired with the world record holder, Yevgeny Kulokov of the USSR.
The pair were neck-and-neck in the Olympic Oval until the final curve, when the Soviet skater faltered, allowing the powerful Heiden the tiniest window of opportunity to pull ahead – which he did, winning the race in front of ecstatic US fans chanting his name.
The American eased to victory in the 5,000m to take his second gold, and won the 1,000m comfortably with a time of 1:15.18. His fourth gold medal came in the 1,500m, which he won despite stumbling on a rut in the ice halfway into the race.
Then came the 10,000m. Heiden, having already made history by becoming the first male speed skater to win four medals at a single Games, allowed himself a night off on the eve of the race to watch his friends in the USA ice hockey team achieve their miracle on ice by beating the USSR.
Pumped up with adrenaline after their famous victory, he found himself unable to nod off – and overslept the next morning. After a rushed breakfast he had to sprint to the track for his final event – hardly the best preparation for an Olympic final.
However, he calmly collected his fifth gold medal with a world record time of 14:28.13 – a performance worthy of Mr Universe.
Heiden was elevated from national hero to sporting icon overnight, his success all the more admired in the speed skating fraternity, as few competitors are ever so gifted at short and long distance events.
His Scandinavian rivals, for so long dominant in the sport, despaired of ever beating him, and instead looked forward to the day he retired.
Heiden left the Games as its most successful athlete and remains the most successful Winter Olympian at a single edition. Weary of the limelight, the unassuming sporting great retired shortly afterwards, later taking up cycling and riding in the Tour de France, before becoming a physician in Salt Lake City, Utah.