An Iceman in from the Cold
11/23/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
AT THE 1980 WINTER OLYMPICS IN LAKE Placid, N.Y., Eric Heiden soared to fame—and a record-setting five gold medals—on the long, knifelike blades of his racing skates. These days, Heiden's fortunes rest on a different kind of blade-the one on the end of his scalpel.
Now 34, the former Olympic speed skater is in his second year as an orthopedic surgical resident at the University of California-Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. The residency is considered one of the country's most intensive and competitive (only three of 350 applicants were selected to participate), but for Heiden the grueling 70-hour-a-week program seemed a natural follow-up to his athletic success. "When you're an athlete, you learn a lot about perseverance and working hard," he says. "Every day I'm up at 5:15 or 5:30, and I have to he at the hospital at 6. It's dark when I wake up, and it's dark when I come home."
While Heiden's 1980 gold rush put him in the record books, he rarely speaks of his athletic past at the hospital. "Eric is a quid individual," says Dr. Michael Chapman, chairman of the medical center's orthopedic surgery department. "He doesn't tell people, 'Hey, I'm Eric Heiden, and I've got a zillion gold medals. When people figure out who he is, he says something low-key, like, 'Yeah, I used to be a skater.' "
Still, says Heiden, sometimes Olympic fame can be an advantage with patients. "It can make dealing with them a lot easier because they have something to talk about," he says. "It's not as awkward."
Heiden, who grew up in Madison, Wis., credits his interest in medicine to his father, Jack, an orthopedic surgeon. "I was always curious about what he did," he says. "He always seemed to be having a good time." But it was ice-skating that consumed Heiden's childhood. He got his first skates at 2, and by the time he was a teenager both he and his younger sister, Beth, were winning international junior skating titles all across Europe. (Beth, 33, who took home a bronze medal in the 3,000-meter-women's speed-skating competition at Lake Placid, now lives in Michigan with her husband, a math professor, and their two children.)
After his Olympic success, though, Heiden shifted gears. Shunning most of the endorsement offers that poured in ("I didn't want to see my face on a box of cornflakes"), he instead hopped on a racing bike and embarked on a seven-year pro cycling career—which included winning the 1985 U.S. professional championship and competing in the 1986 Tour de France—before enrolling in Stanford Medical School. (He now serves part-time as his former cycling squad's team physician and still rides his racing hike to the medical center each morning.) He also found time to help provide commentary for four Olympic telecasts for ABC and CBS, including last February's Winter Games in Albertville, France.
After his residency is complete, Heiden says he hopes to establish a sports medicine practice somewhere in Northern California—perhaps in Sacramento, where he recently purchased a modest three-bedroom home, or in the San Francisco Bay area, where he owns "a great, woodsy house" now occupied by his girlfriend of four years, Stanford medical student Karen Drews, 27. It is not, he laments, a perfect arrangement: "She lives so far away, and since she's a medical student we never get to see each other." Nor does Heiden have much time for home decorating, apparently. One bedroom of his new Sacramento home contains nothing but a racing bike and a rowing machine. What few furnishings he does have were picked up on a one-day shopping excursion to Sears. "I grabbed one of the salesmen and said, 'Follow me,' " Heiden says. "I made the guy's day."
Of course, there will be plenty of time for decorating once Heiden wraps up his residency in 1995. In fact, the two-sport champion is even thinking of adding a third to his repertoire. "Maybe I'll enter some ski races," he says. "But I don't know. People find out you've got five gold medals, and there's high expectations."
JAMES RAIA in Sacramento