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Remembering When Eric Heiden Speed Skated Into Olympic History

Vintage Wisconsin: Wisconsin Has Long Been A Speed Skating Powerhouse


On Feb. 23, 1980, Wisconsin speed skater Eric Heiden won gold in the 10,000-meter race at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics, setting a world record for his time and nabbing his fifth gold medal of the games. He was the first athlete in Olympic history to win five individual gold medals.

Heiden was born in Madison into an athletic family. He began playing ice hockey at a young age and even tried figure skating for a time before switching to speed skating. His sister Beth followed her brother onto the ice and both became leaders in their respective divisions.

Heiden and his sister qualified for the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Young and relatively inexperienced on the world stage, Eric Heiden’s best finish was seventh. The next year, he became the first American to win the world All-Around Men’s Championship at the Senior World Speed Skating championship in the Netherlands.

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Both Heidens qualified for the 1980 Olympics along with longtime friends Mary and Sarah Doctor, also from Wisconsin. Eric Heiden won his first gold in the 500 meters and followed that up with first-place finishes in the 1,000, 1,500, 5,000, and 10,000 meter events.

Wisconsin has long been a speed skating powerhouse. At least one skater from Wisconsin has skated on the winter U.S. Olympic Team since 1932 (this includes athletes who trained in Wisconsin, not just natives). Peter Mueller and Dan Immerfall became the first Wisconsin natives to medal at the Olympics in 1976. Sportscaster Bob Costas, speculating on Wisconsin’s speed skating dominance, said, “It must be the cheese.”

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