Meeting Eric Heiden and Memories of My Mom
By Jon Henes
I grieve that my memories of my mom are fleeting. My mom has lost all of her memories to Alzheimer’s Disease and my memories of my mom are present but hazy and distant. I’ve been told that this might change once my mom dies — that the memories may come back strong. That seems grim to me. I want to have the memories now.
Memories of my mom and me became vivid once again and in the most unexpected way. The memories came back to me when my family and I were skiing out West and my wife couldn’t get rid of a lingering cold. We had a doctor — Dr. Michael Kagen — come see her and as he was checking her he mentioned that he was once a competitive speed skater. My ears perked up as I was taken back in time. I was taken back 39 years.
Thirty-nine years ago I was in Duck Key, Florida with my family on vacation. I was 10 years old. The Winter Olympics were being held in Lake Placid, New York, and the main focus was on the U.S. Hockey team. While I was enthralled with the hockey team and remember watching the miracle on ice in a hotel room, my focus was on Eric Heiden, a speed skater, attempting to accomplish the impossible — win 5 gold medals. Leading up to the Olympics, I read every thing I could get my hands on about Eric Heiden. I collected magazines he was featured in and, during the Olympics, I watched every race. But the most vivid memory was taking walks with my mom in Duck Key, Florida.
With these memories flooding back to me, I came back to present and told Dr. Kagen that Eric Heiden was my childhood hero. He told me he knew him well. I asked if he could get me his autograph for my 50th birthday. He said he would do better than that — he would get me to meet him. I am not one to be starstruck but starstruck I was. Or, maybe it was more than that. I was going to meet my childhood hero — a person who worked so hard to achieve immortality and who taught me through his actions the importance of hard work, tenacity and humility.
As I thought about meeting him, I was again taken back to Duck Key, Florida in 1980. I was walking with my mom in the hot sun, under the bright blue sky, and we were talking. Well, we were walking and I was talking — incessantly. At 10,I had a million thoughts running through my head and I expressed all of them. I had no filter. The thoughts and ideas simply flowed. I rarely — if ever — took a breath as I talked, yet my mom listened. She listened to me as she listened to everyone. She smiled, and looked at me (even while walking) and nodded her head. She listened actively. She listened patiently. She encouraged me. She supported me. She made me feel like all of my thoughts and views were important and compelling. And on February 23, 1980, I told her that I would be the next Eric Heiden. My mom didn’t laugh or discourage me. Instead she said: “you can do anything you put your mind to and work hard at, but if you want to be the next Eric Heiden, you probably need to learn how to ice skate.” I listened to her words but was on to my. next thought. I shared my excitement that the USA hockey team had upset the Soviet Union the day before. I shared my anticipation of Eric Heiden’s attempt to win the 10,000 meter race later that day to get his 5th gold medal. My mom walked with me and listened to me and didn’t laugh at me as I walked with both hands behind my back just like Eric Heiden did when he skated.
Eric Heiden not only won his 5th gold medal that day but set the world record in the 10,000 meters. My mom and I watched it together and cheered. And last week, just shy of 39 years from that day, I got to meet Eric Heiden. When I saw him I reached out and shook his hand. I told him that he was my childhood hero. I told him how I used to walk with my mom and I walked with one or both hands behind my back. He was gracious and kind and completely normal. He showed me his memorabilia and talked to me about speed skating and the Olympics and his kids. I brought my 17 year old son, Sam, with me. Sam talks like I used to — he has so many ideas and thoughts and views, and he’s unafraid to express them just as I was. I hope I listen to him as well as my mom listened to me. I hope my mom instilled me with that trait — the trait of patient, active listening. I wanted him to be with me. I wanted him to meet my hero. I wanted to experience it with him just as I experienced the 1980 Olympics with my mom.
Meeting Eric Heiden was overwhelming and unforgettable. The vivid memories of my mom and me in 1980 were wonderful. After meeting my childhood hero he is still my hero. And it was through this serendipitous encounter that memories I thought out of reach are fully present and will never go away.