Zaccardi: Heiden Olympic legacy lives on with Joanne Reid
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 adrenalin, 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.
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.
“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.”