Found His Niche In The Oval
Both Heidens were leaders in their respective speed-skating divisions, and kept up a demanding training schedule for competitions, which are held weekends from December to February. Heiden's parents put a priority on schoolwork, and he was an honor student. He played soccer in the summer, and trained with the high-school cross-country running team. Dr. Heiden put his children on touring bikes when they were young to help them train their legs for speed skating. When Heiden was fourteen, he decided to leave hockey behind and concentrate on speed skating. He and his sister, who both skated in the American "millpond" or pack racing style, set out to learn the head-to-head racing system used in international competition.
The Heidens were fortunate to live seventy-five miles from one of the nation's two 400-meter oval rinks like those used in the Olympics and world championships. Every day, they attended high school in the morning, did their homework in the car, and skated. It was little more than chance that brought gold-medal-winning speed skater Dianne Holum to the University of Wisconsin just when Heiden was looking for a coach. She increased his already rigorous training, adding weight lifting, more running, and exercises to perfect his aerodynamic skater's crouch.
After a string of race wins, Heiden's break came in 1975, when he made the junior world Speed Skating team, which put him up against the best skaters in the world. Heiden's first European racing season was an eye-opener; speed skating is as popular in Europe as football is in America. Both he and sister Beth made the 1976 junior world team, and Heiden found himself intimidated that, at seventeen, he was often the youngest skater in his division, and much less experienced. He made his mark early on though, winning the 1,500-meter race in an impressive 2:02.82.
Both Heidens qualified for the 1976 Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria. Eric Heiden's best finish was seventh, but it was a good showing for a young and relatively inexperienced skater. At eighteen, he entered his sport's top competition, the Senior world Speed Skating championships at Heerenveen, the Netherlands. There, he broke the track record and won his weakest event, the 500-meter. After finishing third in the 1,500 and ninth in the 5,000, Heiden was surprised to find his name at the top of the points list for the All-Around title. Breaking his own record for the 10,000-meter race, Heiden became the first American to win the world All-Around Men's championship. He went on to take the all-around championship at the next junior worlds in Inzell, West Germany, and the world sprint championship in Alkmaar, Netherlands. Heiden repeated the unprecedented world, junior world, and world sprint championship sweep in 1978, and won both the world and world sprint championships in 1979.