Wowed The World, Modestly
Heiden was one of the first American skaters invited to the Russian Cup competition at the Medeo Sports Center at Alma Ata, one of the world's fastest rinks. Though it was not documented, Heiden set a new record for the 1,000-meter event. The world speed-skating community was shocked that an American speed skater could perform so well. Heiden credited his success to the fact that European skaters are driven hard and expected to perform well. Heiden skated because he loved it, and had only to please himself. His success inspired American interest in the sport. Despite the international accolades he was raking in, Heiden remained modest.
Both Heidens easily made the 1980 Olympic Speed Skating team to compete in Lake Placid, New York. With his championships behind him, there was much more expected of Heiden than at his first Olympics; now, he was a star. Heiden's longtime friends and neighbors in Wisconsin, Mary and Sarah Doctor, also made the 1980 Olympic speed-skating team.
Heiden started the Olympics with the 500-meter race, his weakest event. He was paired to skate against Soviet world-record holder and gold medallist Yevgeny Kulikov. After a close race, Heiden pulled ahead to beat both Kulikov and his record to win the 500-meter gold. For his next event, the 5,000-meter race, Heiden was paired against Dutch skater Hilbert Van Der Dium. After trailing at the start of the race, Heiden again pulled in front to finish first, earning his second gold medal of the 1980 Games, and breaking another Olympic record.
It would have been unthinkable for Heiden to come away with anything less than a gold medal for the 1,000-meter event, and he did not disappoint. He never gave up the lead to Canadian Gaetan Boucher, and broke yet another Olympic record. Skaters were beginning to express their feelings of futility when skating against Heiden, and were not shy about their hopes that he would retire and give someone else a chance to win.
With two races to go, Heiden was not about to give any skater that chance. A slip during the 1,500-meter race against Norway's Kai Arne Stenshjemmet caused the crowd to gasp, as they watched Heiden break his rhythm and nearly fall. At the end of a race, when most skaters tire, Heiden mustered a burst of strength for the final push. He broke the standing Olympic record by four seconds and took his fourth gold. Heiden was just relieved that his most challenging event was over.
The night before Heiden's final event, the 10,000-meter race, the underdog U.S. hockey team was playing its final game, against the Soviet Union. Heiden was an avid hockey fan, and two of his former Pee Wee league mates were playing on the team that night. In a history making upset, the U.S. team beat the Soviets in the final moments of play. Heiden could not resist celebrating the triumph—termed the "Miracle on Ice"—with the rest of America and his friends in Lake Placid. Heiden awoke the next morning to find he had overslept. He dressed in minutes, grabbed some bread for breakfast, and rushed off to the rink.