This Day In History: February 23

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On February 23, 1980, speed skater Eric Heiden wins the 10,000-meter race at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, setting a world record with his time and winning an unprecedented fifth gold medal at the games.

Heiden had been training as a speed skater since the age of 14. At the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Heiden, then 17, came in seventh in the 1500-meter race and 19th in the 5000 meters. He then won the world speed skating championships in 1977, 1978 and 1979 and became a hero in the Netherlands and Norway, where the sport is popular, while remaining less well-known at home in the United States.

Heiden instantly became famous in his homeland, however, after his remarkable performance at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid. On February 15, Heiden won his first gold medal, in the 500 meters. Over the next nine days, this victory was followed by four more first-place finishes, in the 1000 meters, 1500 meters, 5000 meters and 10,000 meters. On February, 23 the 21-year-old skating phenom broke a world record in the 10,000 meters, with a time of 14:28:13. Amazingly, the night before his fifth victory, Heiden stayed up late cheering on the U.S. men’s ice hockey team as they defeated the Soviet Union in a massive upset. He overslept the next day and rushed to the rink for his race after eating just a few slices of bread for breakfast.

Before Heiden, no other athlete in Olympic history had ever won five individual gold medals. American swimmer Mark Spitz took home seven golds in 1972, but three of them were for team relay events. At the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps won four individual gold medals, two relay team golds and one individual bronze and one team bronze.

After retiring from speed skating, Heiden, who largely shunned the spotlight and endorsement deals, became a professional bike racer and an orthopedic surgeon.