Friday, August 15, 2008

Eric Heiden: forgotten Olympian?

Michael Phelps is incredible: 12 gold medals in the past two Olympics, four individual golds this year and all in world record time. And he's a great teammate -- in '04 he gave up a spot on a team medley relay to his friend and primary competition in the 100m butterfly, Ian Crocker, so that Crocker could participate in a relay with a chance for a gold medal (which Crocker and the US team won; as a racer on the team during qualifying, Phelps also received a gold). Phelps' success is also a tribute to the US program as a whole (the US has had seven medal recipients for its mens' relay wins -- one for each of the racers in the finals and three medals for team members who only raced in the preliminary heats). Phelps has four golds in relays, including the one that the US team won Monday night thanks primarily to Jason Lezak's fantastic anchor leg to overtake France's Alain Bernard (who won the individual 100m freestyle). In terms of all-time Olympians, Phelps is now easily #1 -- his 12 golds top the former record of nine, and he's likely to win in his last two events for a total of 14.

As NBC discusses Phelps, and continually compares him to 1972's seven-time gold winner Mark Spitz, there is no mention of Eric Heiden. That's wrong.

To date, Heiden has had the single greatest individual Olympics of all time. He has the record of five individual gold medals, which Phelps will try to match tonight. And Heiden won in a fashion far different from Spitz or Phelps.

Spitz and Phelps are sprinters and medium distance swimmers. The longest race Phelps won is the 400m IM. The five other races he or his team won were 100 or 200m. So Phelps can specialize in his pacing and training -- he doesn't have to stretch to win a 30-lap 1500m minimarathon.

In 1980, Heiden won his five golds in five different distances -- 500, 1000, 1500, 5000 and 10000m. Those lengths are effectively: a full-on sprint, a long sprint, a hybrid sprint/distance, a long distance, and a very long distance. They require different levels of speed burst, speed maintenance, and stamina. And in Heiden's case, lots of concentration considering his competitor in the 10000m (speed skaters race two at a time) quit the race so Heiden had to race the clock and pace himself without any reference point. Each win Heiden had was in Olympic record time. Speed skaters now don't perform in all five races because racing the 5000 and 10000 require different skills from the 500 and 1000.

So if and when Phelps gets the win that gives him his fifth gold medal, he will deserve every accolade he gets. And remember Eric Heiden and his incredible Olympics when he not only dominated his sport but did so at every race and every level.

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