Take 5: An interview with ’70s track champ Steve Heidenreich
Morning Thunder/BOEC trail run
What: A 4K or 7K on the trails of Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. 1976 Olympic qualifier Steve Heidenreich leads the starting wave in the second race of the Summit Trail Running Series.
When: Wednesday, June 24 at 6 p.m.
Where: Mountain Thunder Lodge start
Cost: Adults $22 pre-registration or $25 same day; Youth (10-17) $5
For more information on the race series, including course maps, see www.townofbreckenridge.com.
Steve Heidenreich didn’t know it in 1970, but his track coaches were yoga fanatics long before downward dog was cool.
Back then, when the South Dakota native was setting state track records in the mile and half-mile as a junior, he’d show up to practice and immediately begin with breathing exercises. The quasi-yoga poses didn’t mean much to him at the time, but he trusted his coaches: In 1970, he ran a 4:16 mile, only to break 4:11 the next year for a spot on the Indiana University squad.
And then, yoga truly paid off. After working with coaches Sam Bell and Charlie Baker — the man who helped Lee Evans notch an Olympic Gold Medal in the 1968 400-meter dash — Heidenreich continued to get better and better, eventually earning a spot on the U.S. team invites to compete in Russia, Czechoslovakia, Rome and dozens of stateside venues.
Heidenreich was a shoe-in for the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal until a training incident derailed his career. It knocked him out of Olympic contention, but it hardly slowed him down. Today, he gives presentations across the country and is co-owner of Blue Lotus Yoga Studio in Breckenridge — an ode to his early coaches.
The Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Heidenreich during Summit’s first Olympic Day on June 23 to talk about his accident, chasing world records and how losing is never as bad as it seems.
Summit Daily: In the ’70s, you were one of the top running prospects in the U.S. But then you were struck by a car while training and forced to permanently hang up your shoes. What happened?
Steve Heidenreich: The next year, after the Russian races (first international race as a U.S. team member), I was having my best season ever in indoor track. I ran a four (minute) flat mile indoors, which is much harder than running outdoors because of the curves on the track. You just can’t run as fast. What I did my junior and senior year in college was make 4.0 my goal: break four minutes in the mile and get a 4.0 GPA. I took those characteristics and traits I used in athletics — perseverance, motivation, determination — and used that in the academic arena.
I had just finished at the library, rode my bike home to the apartment and changed to my running clothes. I was even wearing my USA running uniform. I was on the left-hand side, facing traffic, and a driver came from the right side and hit me from behind. I flew over the car — my skull smashed on the concrete, and I broke my jaw. The driver left me there to die, but, fortunately, a graduate student, someone who was in the Army as an EMT in Vietnam — the kind of guy who jumped out of helicopters to save soldiers — saw me on the ground and came to me. He treated me for shock. I was semiconscious until we got to the hospital, when I told the neurosurgeon, “Help me, please help me.” And then, I passed out and went into a coma.
SDN: I think every athlete fears a career-ending injury. Talk about your recovery: How do you come back from such a devastating accident?
SH: The doctor gave me a 5 percent chance of living. If I was going to live, I was going to be vegetative — I couldn’t compete college, couldn’t run again, would never make it to the Olympics. Then, I was in a coma for two weeks, and the doctor was worried about that. It’s not usual for someone to be in a coma that long. He asked my parents if they could try a new, experimental drug, and it worked, but when I came out my mental age was that of a 2-year-old in a 22-year-old body. I had to grow up again.
The first week was mostly learning the physical functions, like walking and those things. But after that week, I was trying so hard to get out of the hospital that they decided to release me. I flew home to South Dakota, and my mom quit her job at the time as a special ed. teacher’s aide to be my teacher’s aide, 24-7. We’d go for walks, and I’d say, “Mom, what’s that?” She’d say, “That’s a chair,” or “That’s a tree.”
The miraculous thing was at the time, my brain started healing. I was growing mental years in weeks. I left the hospital in April as a toddler, and, by August, I was a teenager. So, I decided to go back to college to take senior-level business courses as a 13-year-old, mentally. I would do my homework three times over, but again, I was putting all the drive I found in athletics toward school. I still ran twice a day and practiced with the team. I did train for the ’80 Olympics, but, if you remember, they were boycotted.
SDN: I don’t know track strategy, but after watching a few of your races, it looks like you often waited for the final lap to make a move. How did you mentally prepare to turn on the afterburners?
SH: You visualize it. What I would do, starting as a junior in high school, is I would visualize my races. Formula 1 drivers do the same thing — they’re shifting the curves, the turns, every motion in the lap. I would go through the same thing in my mind many, many times over before the race. The big key when I beat the Kenyans (in 1975) was to have patience and wait even longer. I let them lead until about 150 meters to go, and I exploded to gain 10 meters.
SDN: You told a group of Breck summer campers to “learn from losing.” What lessons did you take away from losing, even when a “loss” was coming in second place at an international race?
SH: What you ask yourself is, “Did I run my best race in this performance?” If the answer is yes, there’s nothing to be unhappy about. You did the best you could, and, on that day, someone did better. But, that doesn’t mean you won’t win in the future. It’s a path, a journey, and that’s one thing I love about athletics, such as running, wrestling, yoga, any of it. They’re all very individual, and as long as you improve and make progress in stride, nothing can be better.
Breck camper Brooke Wagner (9 years old): Why did you want to be an Olympian?
SH: I enjoyed competition. I enjoyed sport. I enjoyed going out there and pushing myself to be the best, and I wanted to be one of the best in the world. There was nothing I enjoyed more than competing against other athletes who wanted to be the best.
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