Thumb-sized Beth Heiden, an Olympic medalist in speed skating and former world champion in both that sport and cycling, is enjoying life this winter as a collegiate cross-country ski racer. And a good one at that.
A senior at the University of Vermont (UVM), she is a dean's list student majoring in math. She admits serving two masters - the tough math curriculum on one hand and the desire to keep improving as a ski racer on the other - sometimes can be annoying, but sports have to take a back seat to studies.
''School is first,'' she says, ''and I've got to do my studies.'' She plans to attend graduate school in the Midwest, ''but I'm keeping my options open about where I'll go and just what I'm heading for.''
Until a year or so ago, skating always had been front and center during the winter for Heiden and her brother, Eric, the five-time gold medalist from the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid. However, while they were in Norway a couple of years ago, they went cross-country skiing with friends and she fell for the sport. When she backed away from the international spotlight after Lake Placid, where she earned a bronze medal in the 3,000-meter race, she veered toward skiing.
''We were in Norway, way out in the sticks, and we had a chance to go skiing, '' she explained. ''We borrowed some gear - you know, wooden skis, if you're lucky you find two boots that match, and all of that. Well, it was a lot of fun and then I skied in prepared tracks - there weren't any tracks set that first time - and I found the tracks made a lot of difference. I thought, 'Hey, this is really a lot of fun' and, so, since I wasn't skating any more, and I love being outside in winter, I felt I'd better find something else and skiing seemed like a pretty natural choice.''
Beth, 23, has shown enough spunk and promise in her one full season of collegiate competition to be named to the US Ski Team's ''talent pool,'' but she says she wants to keep things low-key and away from any international level, at least for now. She's stifling any thoughts of competing in the 1984 Olympics as a skier, but she concedes that the idea gnaws at her from time to time.
''Being on the development team is a far cry from being on an elite team,'' Beth says. ''Right now I'm still just enjoying skiing this way, racing at the college level. It's not real intense. I've still got that competitive attitude, but school is still most important.''