Few riders on the BMC Racing Team were aware an athlete who produced one of the most amazing moments in Olympic history was in their midst Sunday.
At 51, Dr. Eric Heiden still looks extremely fit. But the flowing black hair he tucked under his racing hood as the world’s greatest speedskater of the late 70s and early 80s is now a salt-and-pepper grey. And you have to ask him to talk about his Olympic achievements before he’ll open up about winning five gold medals at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid. He set one world record and four Olympic records in the process, and had the Madison, Wisc., native been a country, he would have finished third in the gold medal count.
“When I stepped off the rink at Lake Placid, I don’t think I could have skated any better in those races,” Heiden said. “That’s one of the things I remember most.”
Part Of The Medical Team
Heiden is one of five physicians on the BMC Racing Team’s medical staff for 2010. Dr. Massimo Testa is the team’s chief medical officer, assisted by Dr. Dario Spinelli (sports medicine), Dr. Scott Major (Ear, Nose and Throat/Allergist), Dr. Giovanni Ruffani (sports medicine Echography) and Heiden. The five work together to provide medical assistance to the riders throughout the season. Testa is in charge of each rider’s medical files, which include the UCI-mandated biological passports containing records of all urine and blood testing and haematological and steroid profiles.
Heiden splits his time between the BMC Racing Team, his private practice in Park City, Utah, and work for USA Cycling and USA Speedskating. Sunday, he was in Napa, Calif., at the Queen of the Valley Medical Center’s cardiology department, assisting with the team’s annual health monitoring. His involvement with cycling can be traced back to his days of competing against BMC Racing Team President Jim Ochowicz in speedskating. Ochowicz and Heiden would go on to create America’s flagship cycling team, 7-Eleven, with Heiden himself competing in the Tour de France in 1986.
“Having been an athlete, you really understand the pressures and rigors of racing and what it’s like to be an athlete,” Heiden said. “So you can really understand what goes through the minds of the athlete. It also gives you a little more respect from the athletes. So if you talk with them, they know you have been there before. What you say is often taken with more importance than maybe another physician who didn’t have those experiences.”
Battery of Tests
There was a flurry of activity Sunday in the cardiology department at Queen of the Valley Medical Center as Drs. Heiden and Testa worked with Dr. Andrew Wong and staff from Cardiology Consultants of Napa Valley to put the BMC Racing Team riders through a battery of tests. An avid cyclist himself, Dr. Wong has facilitated this testing the past two years with the help of half a dozen others, many of whom are also cyclists.
Each rider underwent a physical, as well as an electrocardiogram, which looks at heart rhythm, and a stress test, to detect any anomalies in blood pressures and blood flow. The health monitoring is more of a preventative measure to protect each rider from the vigorous risks of the sport, Wong said.
Olympics On The Horizon
February will be a busy month for Heiden. He will be away from his wife, Karen, and two children (Zoe, 8, and Connor, 6) for several weeks while he works with the U.S. speedskating team at the Winter Olympics. Sharing photos on his phone of Connor skateboarding and snowboarding, it’s clear Heiden is proud watching his own children excel in athletics.
“He’s a daredevil,” Heiden said of Connor. “It’s actually kind of scary watching him at times. Kids these days have all those X Games-type of sports to do. Being a father, you want to make sure your kids have the experiences you had growing up and have a safe environment to explore their ability.”
When Heiden enters the Olympic Village in Vancouver, Canada, exactly 30 years will have passed since his stirring performances in Lake Placid. Friendships made during those whirlwind two weeks with hockey players Mike Eruzione and Mark Johnson, figure skaters Scott Hamilton and Peter Carruthers and skiing brothers Phil Mahre and Steve Mahre continue to this day. But what remains most memorable?
“I remember going to see the U.S. hockey team play Russia and then the gold medal game against Finland,” he said. “I got to sit right below the table where Al Michaels and Ken Dryden were announcing. I could hear them calling the game while sitting there watching the game in person. It was a special place and a special time.”