Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Eric Heiden: Making Your Own Way


I really liked it best when I was a nobody. ~ Eric Heiden

There was a time when an Olympic athlete could pretty much vanish if s/he wanted. Opportunities for fame and fortune were relatively limited unless you participated in high profile sports like figure skating or downhill skiing. If you played hockey, there were always the pro leagues, but you couldn't quite count on being mobbed by Madison Avenue for your face on a Wheaties box. Of course, a lot of that changed in 1980. That was the year the Winter Games were held in Lake Placid.

I wasn't there but I watched with tears streaming as the American team entered the outdoor stadium, wearing cowboy hats and western-style leather jackets. Waving and smiling, they were having the time of their lives and the crowd went absolutely crazy. It had been 20 years since the Winter Olympics had been held in the United States and we were hungry. The American hockey team was a group of college students facing down European professionals. It was the year of the Miracle on Ice, when our guys won gold.

It was also the year Eric Heiden became the only athlete in history to win all five speed skating events in a single Olympics and take gold in each one. If it had been 2010, he could easily have become wealthy through endorsements. My take on him is, he tends to go his own way. He didn't much care for the limelight, and having apparently accomplished his skating goal, he finished college and went on to medical school. If he'd followed the typical career track, the next step would be residency. But like I say, he seems to go his own way.

Instead of residency, he took time off and tried his hand at professional bike racing, becoming a founding member of the famed 7-ll cycling team that included names like Davis Phinney and Lance Armstrong. Following an injury that eliminated him in the final days of the 1986 Tour de France (American Greg LeMond's first year on the victor's stand), he finished his medical training.

Now Dr. Eric Heiden, he's an orthopedic surgeon and specialist in sports medicine, practicing near Salt Lake City. He's still not one for notoriety but he's gotten more comfortable with his Olympic accomplishments. You may have noticed him in a segment about speed skater J. R. Celski who was injured last September; Eric is his doctor.

It takes a lot of nerve to follow your own sense of direction. Aside from the fact that he's a colleague, although we've never met, I think this is what I respect most about him. Rather than beat his head against a wall trying to turn his skating career into wealth, he got an education. Taking a break between medical school and residency is risky from the standpoint of competing for training positions. Nevertheless, he wanted to race bicycles and so that's what he did. He's made his own choices and he's made his own way. From where I sit, that's not a bad way to go.



(Image of Eric Heiden at the 1980 Winter Olympics by Sarah -- licensing unknown)
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