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Heiden Olympic legacy lives on with Joanne Reid

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Joanne Firesteel Reid remembers every burning minute of those seven hours.

“Because firstly, I was awake through both procedures,” she wrote, “and secondly because, you know, they saved my athletic career.”

Reid, a 25-year-old biathlete, said she almost blacked out at the penultimate World Cup stop of the 2016-17 season in Kontiolahti, Finland.

She was diagnosed with paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia, which she then realized had been going on since 2014. Her heart would occasionally get stuck at 230 beats per minute for up to an hour straight.

“It’s not dangerous, actually, but what it does do is when your heart enters the tachycardia loop, the blood isn’t cycling correctly, so you’re not recovering as fast or maybe at all,” she said. “When your heart gets confused basically.”

The episodes occurred at high stress.

“If my heart rate would start to come down, I would get stuck in tachycardia,” she said.

That’s particularly troublesome in her sport. Biathletes normally shoot after their elevated heart rate from skiing lowers slightly, but trying to do so at well over 200 beats per minute is “like trying to shoot in the middle of an earthquake,” she told her hometown newspaper in Boulder, Colorado.

So in August, and again in October, Reid arrived at Massachusetts General Hospital’s cardiology unit for a heart procedure to keep her Olympic dream alive.

She had to be awake for each 3½-hour procedure.

“They pumped me full of adrenaline, then they stimulated my heartbeat to really massively high rates, and then they burned [my femoral vein],” Reid said. “It’s sort of like your chest is on fire, and it really is in a way.”

Reid could not train at full intensity for two weeks after each procedure, yet recovered to make the five-woman U.S. Olympic biathlon team fewer than three years after picking up the sport.

 NBCOlympics.com: More on biathlon

The story adds to her family’s athletic legacy.

You may recognize her uncle Eric Heiden, who won five gold medals in speed skating at the 1980 Lake Placid Games and rode the Tour de France.

And her mom, Beth Heiden Reid, who won an Olympic bronze medal and world all-around title in speed skating, plus a world title in road cycling.

Reid’s parents now live in Palo Alto, California.

“I guess the Olympics are probably not meaningless to anyone, but if I said that I was part of a family legacy, I would say my family legacy leans more toward working for Apple,” said Reid, who has an undergraduate mathematics degree and a master’s in engineering from the University of Colorado. “That seems to be the majority holding right now.”

Reid grew up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with older brothers Garrett and Carl. Her middle name, Firesteel, comes from a river that empties into Lake Superior.

“It seemed appropriate to us at the time because we wanted her to be strong,” said Beth, whose first daughter, Susan Elizabeth, was born with heart, kidney and liver problems a year earlier and died at 19 days.

Mom said none of her kids knew about the family Olympic history until they were in elementary school during their father’s two-year sabbatical when they lived in Madison, Wisconsin.

The kids went to the same school as Eric and Beth. On the playground, there was a 15-foot-by-15-foot building named “the Heiden Haus,” a warming area for when the local fire department would flood the field every winter to create a skating rink.

“The other little kids in school all knew about the Heiden speed skaters,” Beth said. “When my kids showed up, they said, ‘That’s your mom.’”

The family moved to Palo Alto after the sabbatical and spent weekends and holidays cross-country skiing in Truckee.

Reid and her mom competed against each other at the 2010 U.S. Cross-Country Championships, with 50-year-old mom beating 17-year-old daughter in a pair of races. It bears mentioning that Beth also won an NCAA cross-country title at Vermont in 1983.

Reid won her NCAA title for Colorado in 2013 but wasn’t keen on continuing as an elite professional skier. She kept competing while going for her master’s.

Reid traveled to Houghton, Michigan, for the January 2015 U.S. Cross-Country Championships. She stayed with family friends who were crazy about Nordic skiing. They watched early morning live streams of World Cup biathlon races from Europe.

“I had never seen a biathlon race and didn’t know a thing about it,” said Reid, who had forgotten that 10 or 15 years earlier she and the other kids in her California ski club actually did biathlon once or twice a year.

Around that time, her grandfather, Jack Heiden, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He had a biathlon rifle and passed it down to Beth.

“Joanne thought, I could use grandpa’s rifle, and I can start biathlon,” Beth said. “It was a perfect match.”

Joanne proved a precocious talent. Nearly a year to the day after leaving the U.S. Cross-Country Skiing Championships in Houghton, Reid was competing on biathlon’s highest level, the World Cup, in Ruhpolding, Germany.

“When she showed up on the World Cup, we realized that none of the athletes who were racing on the World Cup at that time had actually ever met her,” two-time U.S. Olympian Susan Dunklee said. “That had never happened before. We had never had somebody come onto the World Cup who none of us knew.”

Reid’s best finish in those first two seasons was 29th. She ranked third among U.S. women in 2016-17 in the only sport where the U.S. hasn’t won a Winter Olympic medal.

She made the 2017 World Championships team and seemed destined for Pyeongchang. The heart procedures ended up being a temporary roadblock. She feels fine now.

NBCOlympics.com: Watch biathlon events, highlights

“This is something I wanted to do for my grandfather,” Reid said of the Olympics, “before he passes away.”

Jack Heiden, 84, still lives in Madison.

“We all go to visit him regularly,” Beth said. “We tell him about Joanne and the rifle, and he’s all excited. I can tell him about it again the next day, and he’s just as excited.”

Reid used the rifle passed down by her grandfather for her first full season of biathlon. It was named “Forget-Me-Not.”

Reid’s rifle the last two seasons includes art designs of the state flowers of Wisconsin, Colorado and California and the forget-me-not surrounding the word “Tunkasila,” which means grandfather.

On the other side is a naked woman.

“Lady Fortune — the mistress of biathlon,” Reid told the IBU. “In a sport full of ups and downs, dependent on both skill and luck, chance is a part of our lives. Without Fortune’s favor, we cannot succeed, and she is a fickle mistress indeed.”

Who is Italy’s greatest Olympian?

Alberto Tomba
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Italy ranks sixth on the total Olympic medal list, thanks in large part to its fencers. Italian fencers have won a leading 125 medals, more than double the nation’s total in any other sport. The Italians are known for their personalities, from La Bomba to the Cannibal, with six of their best detailed here …

Deborah Compagnoni
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only Alpine skier to earn gold at three straight Olympics. Compagnoni overcame a broken knee as a junior racer and life-saving surgery to remove 27 inches of her intestine in 1990 to win the Albertville 1992 super-G by 1.8 seconds. It remains the largest margin of victory in the discipline for either gender since 1968. The following day, Compagnoni tore knee ligaments in the giant slalom. She returned to win the GS at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Compagnoni ended her Olympic career with the biggest rout in a GS at a Winter Games, prevailing by 1.41 seconds in Nagano.

Klaus Dibiasi
Diving
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only diver to win the same individual event three times. The Austrian-born Dibiasi took platform silver in 1964 at age 17, then three straight golds through 1976. Dibiasi was coached by his father, who was 10th on platform at the 1936 Berlin Games. In his final Olympics, Dibiasi held off a 16-year-old Greg Louganis, who would go on to challenge, if not overtake, Dibiasi as the greatest male diver in history.

Eugenio Monti
Bobsled
Six Olympic Medals

Regarded by many as the greatest bobsled driver in history. Monti captured two silver medals in 1956, missed the 1960 Winter Games that didn’t include bobsled, then two bronzes in 1964 and a pair of golds at age 40 in 1968. On top of that, the nine-time world champion is remembered for an act of sportsmanship in 1964. In between runs, Monti lent a bolt off his own two-man sled to a British team whose sled was damaged. The Brits took gold, ahead of both Italian sleds.

Alberto Tomba
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

“La Bomba” dazzled by sweeping the giant slalom and slalom at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, after dubbing himself the “Messiah of Skiing“ beforehand. Known for his man-about-town ways, Tomba offered one of his gold medals to East German figure skater Katarina Witt should she fall short in her event. After Witt repeated as gold medalist, the story goes that Tomba showed up with a bouquet of roses and an autographed picture of himself, made out out to “Katerina.” “I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m.,” Tomba once said. “Now I live it up with five women until 3 a.m,”

Valentina Vezzali
Fencing
Six Olympic Gold Medals

An 18-year-old Vezzali was an alternate for the 1992 Olympics, forced to watch on TV as the Italian women took team foil gold. Vezzali made the next five Olympics, winning medals in all nine of her events, including three straight individual titles, the last as a mom. Vezzali finished her career with nine total Olympic medals, 25 world championships medals, a flag bearer honor at the 2012 Opening Ceremony and as a member of Italy’s parliament.

Armin Zoeggeler
Luge
Six Olympic Medals

“The Cannibal” retired in 2014 as the first athlete to earn a medal in the same individual event at six straight Olympics. Zoeggeler earned silver and bronze medals in 1994 and 1998, then overtook German legend Georg Hackl for gold in 2002, followed by winning at home in Torino in 2006. He held on for bronze medals in 2010 and 2014, behind the new German luge star, Felix Loch, who would be coached by Hackl. Growing up on top of a steep hill, Zoeggeler began sledding at age 7 to catch the school bus at the bottom.

GREATEST OLYMPIANS: Germany | Liechtenstein | Japan

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Kurt Angle recalls devastation, exultation of Olympic wrestling gold medal

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Kurt Angle doesn’t remember much from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but he won’t forget that moment of deep emotional pain.

In the 100kg final, Angle and Iranian Abbas Jadidi were tied 1-1 after regulation and an overtime period.. Eight total minutes of wrestling. They also had the same number of passivity calls, forcing a judges’ decision to determine the gold medalist.

After deliberation, the referee stood between each wrestler in the middle of the mat. He held each’s wrist, ready to reveal the champion to the Georgia World Congress Center crowd — and to the athletes. Angle, now 51, has rarely watched video of the match. But he distinctly remembers, in his peripheral vision, Jadidi’s left arm rising.

“I thought I lost,” Angle said by phone this week. “So right away, I was like, s—, four more years.”

Turns out, the Iranian was raising his own arm. An instant later, the referee suppressed Jadidi. He lifted Angle’s right arm. The wrestler sobbed.

“I had so much emotion because I was devastated and then I was told that I won,” Angle said. “It was a very odd experience. I didn’t know how to handle it. It felt like my father died all over again. That’s how much grief I had. Then, all of a sudden, you won.”

Angle thought of two people immediately after he won, falling to his knees in prayer. First, his father, David, who died in a construction accident when Angle was 16. Second, the 1984 Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz, his coach who was murdered by John du Pont six months before the Games.

Angle went on to become one of the most famous U.S. gold medalists of the Atlanta Games, due largely to a two-decade career as a professional wrestler, including as a world heavyweight champion with the WWE.

It would have been different if the referee kept Jadidi’s arm in the air. Angle went into the Olympics knowing it would be his last competition, but only if he took gold. Anything less, and he would continue on, perhaps into his 30s and the 2000 Sydney Games. Despite everything Angle went through just to get to Atlanta.

In the year leading up to the Olympics, Angle lost Schultz, broke his neck at the U.S. Open and, five minutes before each match at the Olympic Trials, received 12 shots of novocaine to numb the pain long enough to advance to the next round. Angle later developed a painkiller addiction.

Angle, a Pennsylvania native, was part of the Foxcatcher club when du Pont shot and killed Schultz. Angle said he wasn’t consulted for the 2014 film “Foxcatcher,” but he thought it was well done save a few instances of dramatic license.

“Unfortunately, I hate to admit this, but if it weren’t for Team Foxcatcher, I probably wouldn’t have won my gold medal,” Angle said. “I probably wouldn’t have known Dave Schultz, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did. It sucks because, to have to thank John du Pont for the ability of allowing me to pay me to wrestle full time and win a world championship [in 1995] and Olympic gold medal, that was huge, but he killed Dave Schultz. The club would have thrived to this day. It just sucks it turned out the way it did, because it made me the best wrestler in the world. Dave Schultz had a lot to do with that, but a lot of wrestlers that followed could have not had to worry about money and could have trained and competed.”

Angle shared his gold medal with, he estimated, thousands of people before housing it in a safe.

“The gold was wearing off,” Angle said. “One kid, I remember, I was at an elementary school, and he grabbed my medal by the ribbon and started twirling it around real fast. He let go of it, and it hit the wall. There’s a big dent in my gold medal. That was the last time I brought it to an elementary school.”

Angle announced in 2011, at age 42, that he was training to come back for the 2012 Olympic Trials. He never made it, calling it off with a knee injury.

“But I trained hard for it,” Angle said, noting he still kept up appearances with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. “I will tell you this, I wouldn’t have made the team. My goal was to place in the top three. I just missed the [thrill of] competition.”

It meant that Angle’s last match remained that Olympic final. His last moment as a freestyle wrestler having his arm raised.

“All I wanted to do was win a world championship and an Olympic gold medal, and I did them both,” Angle said, sobbing, just off the mat that night in Atlanta. “If I died tonight, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”

MORE: Most decorated U.S. female Olympian on front line of coronavirus fight

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