This favorite son from South Dakota broke the 4-minute mile eight times in college. But what came next was the truly amazing story
Steve Heidenreich will speak today at a special education conference in Pierre and at two events in Fort Pierre. He told his story to the Capital Journal.
Heidenreich graduated from high school in Watertown. While in high school, he ran a mile in 4:11 at a meet in Yankton. That qualified him for the high school national championship in Chicago.
He finished second in the nation, and a lot of schools wanted to recruit him. He went on to Indiana University, where he had a very successful career under Sam Bell.
“In the four years that I competed at Indiana University, we were Big Ten team champions seven times. He was the 1976 Olympic coach,” he said.
In 1975, he broke the four-minute mile eight times. He competed on the USA track team as it competed in Kiev, Russia, and Prague, Czechoslovakia. In the USA-Africa meet, he defeated the team from Kenya in the mile run, with his last lap clocking in at 54 seconds.
“So I was pretty set for the 1976 Olympics,” he said. “I was set to make the Olympic team.”
In March 1976, tragedy struck.
“A few months before the games, I was facing traffic, running on the left-hand side, and a car came over from the right-hand side and swerved over. And hit me while I was running. I mean, I was training for the Olympic team. I had my USA uniform on.”
The driver took off. Fortunately, a few seconds later, another driver spotted him lying by the roadside. He had medical training, and acted immediately. He treated Heidenreich and flagged down another driver to call 911.
Heidenreich got to the hospital, but the worst was not over. Dr. Richard Rak had to deliver the bad news — he had suffered permanent brain damage.
“Dr. Rak talked to my parents and said Steve has a five percent chance to live. If he lives, he will probably be vegetative. We cannot expect him to complete college, or compete again.”
Two weeks later, he came out of his coma.
“I woke up with the mental age of a 2-year-old, in a 22-year-old body,” he said. “And grew up again.”
His mother, a special education teaching assistant, quit her job to become his full-time caretaker. They would go for walks, and as they walked, she taught him basic vocabulary. Words like “plant” and “chair” and “flowers.”
In that time, he grew dramatically. By August, he was 13 again. He decided to go back to college.
He enrolled in senior classes, but it nearly became too much for him. He had to relearn all the vocabulary words for accounting, economics, finance, business law and more.
He confided in Dr. Rak and the school. He still remembers what the school psychologist told him.
“He says, ‘Steven, this can be painful. You are going to suffer. This will be the hardest thing you ever have to do. But you can do it.’ And that’s all I needed — when he said, ‘You can do it,’” Heidenreich recalled.
Heidenreich said he was able to make it because of his training as an Olympic athlete. The same character traits that got him within sight of being on the Olympic team also helped him survive in the classroom. And during this time, he was also training to run again.
“The next spring, 1977 I graduated from Indiana University. And 13 months after the accident, I competed again. Ran the mile in 4:22. Trained for the 1980 Olympics. And I have successfully completed three graduate degrees, with the lowest GPA of 3.66,” he said.
Heidenreich might have made it onto the 1980 Olympic team, but history got in the way. The Russians had invaded Afghanistan, and the United States decided to boycott the Olympics, since the games were held in Moscow that year.
That upset the athletes.
“We love competing against the Russians. We wanted to beat them. The team, the athletes, just wanted to go there and show them what we’re made of. You know, we’re Team USA.”
Still, Heidenreich has no complaints.
“I’ve been blessed. Now I get to help others be successful,” he said.
And that success can apply to anything — track and field, debate, wrestling or academics, Heidenreich said.
He travels the country giving motivational speeches. At home, in Breckenridge, Colorado, he and his wife run Blue Lotus Yoga Studio. He has also spent several years teaching special education — something that resonates with him because there was a time he was on the receiving end.
Heidenreich said there are several lessons to learn. He cited the 1975 race in Kiev where he was up against two Russians who were speeding around the track in record time. Still, he and fellow American Ken Popejoy passed them in the final lap for a one-two finish, with Popejoy on top.
“That’s the character of a South Dakotan. No matter what, a South Dakotan is going to go for the win. When I ran on the USA Team, every race, I went for the win. Did I win every race? No. However, I had the courage to go after the goal in every race.”
In fact, he said Popejoy actually did him a favor. Heidenreich ran that lap in 55 seconds and still got beat, because Popejoy ran that same lap in 54. That taught him that to compete at that level he would need to run the last lap in 54 seconds — which is exactly what he did in his victory against the Kenyans.
“The great athletes don’t want to be just ‘good.’ To tell an Olympian, or an athlete at that level, ‘You were pretty good,’ would be an insult. They want to be great. Great, the best,” he said.
The story has yet another lesson. Heidenreich later found out who had run him over.
“Early in the morning, a father woke up, went out to his car, and realized that his car had been seriously damaged. So he got his son up, and they went to the police station,” he said.
This was about seven hours after the accident. The son blew a .08 — which meant he must have been heavily drunk at the time of the accident.
They told the police the accident occurred in roughly the same spot and roughly the same time that Heidenreich was hit. But the young man claimed it was a large animal, and not Heidenreich.
“This is important. Early on, I chose to forgive him. I had to forgive him to help me grow to be successful. Because I couldn’t focus on that negative energy. I had to focus on ‘I’m going to be successful, no matter what it takes.’ So nothing happened,” Heidenreich said.
Linda Raney, of the USD Center for Disabilities, got to meet Heidenreich when he asked to be part of the conference taking place today in Pierre. She shared a few kind words with him.
“You are such an inspiration for what you went through. And my trials are nothing compared to what you have accomplished,” she said.