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.''
She lives off-campus with four others and trains almost every afternoon for a couple of hours. However, if her academic schedule demands it, she skips race training and concentrates on her books.
It is a different regimen from her skating days when she would train two or three times a day, with each session running from 45 minutes to perhaps two hours.
''I used to feel guilty when I didn't get out to train, but your priorities change,'' she says. ''Some days I just don't do anything about training. I don't like it, but it happens.''
In addition to getting away from the media glare in speed skating, Heiden back-pedaled away from biking races in the off-season. ''It was just too intense ,'' she says, adding she plans to resume biking this summer, ''but not at any high-level competition.''
While the '84 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, nibble at the edge of her thoughts, Heiden says she sets no goals for herself in skiing ''except to keep improving.
''I didn't really set goals when I was skating either; I'd just go out and try to improve my personals (her best time in an event), but it's all so standardized in skating. In skiing, each course is different even though the distance may be the same, so I'm just trying to keep skiing better.''
''The Olympics would be fun but I'd have to put in a lot of [training] time and ski a lot more seriously,'' she added, indicating that if that had been her top priority, she probably would have been better off taking this year off from school to devote more time to training.
Heiden's biggest handicap, according to coaches, is her lack of experience as a skier. Her technique isn't perfect, but that is offset in part by her attitude and athletic background.
''Beth's incredibly coachable,'' says John Estle, head ski coach at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks but a UVM assistant coach a year ago who worked extensively with Heiden. ''She's got that excellent attitude and then that athletic sense, so you don't have to keep telling her how to do something. She picks up on coaching right away,''
Chip LaCasse, head ski coach at the University of Vermont, adds, ''She's our No. 2 skier [behind veteran national team skier Joanne Musolf] and she's been great. We didn't recruit her - she chose us - and she's been a really pleasant surprise for us.''
LaCasse says her progress ''has been astronomical for someone who has been skiing less than two years, just phenomenal. She's even learning about waxing her skis; last year the coaches waxed her skis, but this year she gets right in there and helps decide the right wax, and then helps put it on her skis.''
Heiden competes each weekend on the college winter carnival circuit, running the middle leg in UVM's three-member relay as well as her individual race. Last weekend she scored her first collegiate victory in the five-kilometer individual race at the University of New Hampshire Winter Carnival, helping her team to the overall championship.
She is competing this week in Waitsfield, Vt., about an hour from the UVM campus, in qualifying races for a spot on the US team going to the World University Games in Bulgaria in mid-February.
''I'd like to make the team, and the qualifiers may be my biggest races all season . . . and then the NCAAs, of course,'' she says. ''I think about the Olympics, but the college level is probably the highest I'll ever ski. It's an excellent level and I'm having fun here.''
LaCasse adds, ''Beth's doing a super job of walking a thin line between getting a good education and maintaining that highly competitive attitude, which is pretty typical of our skiers. She rooms with other skiers and, sure, they want to ski but they're the kind of student-athlete you like to see. It's a tough balancing act and, especially with her fiery competitive nature. She's handling it very well.''
The ''down side'' to the enjoyment and satisfaction, she says, ''is not being able to do something to the very best that I can do it. That bothers me a little. In skating, I did everything to the best, I put everything into it . . . but I can't do that with skiing.''
Clearly, skiing has not consumed Beth Heiden the way skating did. She keeps intensity at arm's length. She has grown - in character if not in size (''I'm up maybe four or five pounds to 110,'' the 5 ft. 2 in. Wisconsin native says, grinning) - and is a smiling, serious but personable college student who just happens to be a pretty fair skier, too.