A Runner's Story: Stephen Heidenreich

If you stop by the local gym on any given day in Watertown, South Dakota, you’re likely to find one of the state’s most decorated athletes still pushing himself after all these years.

Stephen Heidenreich is now in his 60s, but his competitive spirit is as strong as it was decades ago, when he was on his way to becoming one of the nation’s – and the world’s – top middle-distance runners.

That drive began to take shape the summer after his freshman year of high school. Heidenreich was inspired by Team USA’s success in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and he set his goals accordingly.

“I’m going to break four minutes in the mile, and I’m going to run for the USA. And I would tell my classmates that at Watertown High School, and they’d say, ‘Uh huh, right. Sure Steve.’”

Undeterred, he dedicated himself to year-round training, and by his junior year, that Olympic dream didn’t seem so far-fetched.

“My mile in high school went from 5:15 to 4:45 to 4:16 to 4:11.”

“At that time in the 70s, South Dakota had some fabulous middle-distance runners.”

“The benefit of that was that we helped each other. We helped each other become better because we had to rise to the challenge.”

Heidenreich would win multiple South Dakota state titles on the track while setting the state record in the mile in 4:09.6, a time that still remains the second-fastest in state history.

After high school, Stephen’s star would continue to rise while competing at Indiana University.

“I wanted to be a Big Ten champion, and I achieved that in 1975. I also wanted to be an All-American. That was important. I was a two-time All-American.”

Heidenreich’s collegiate success didn’t go unnoticed. In the summer of ‘75, he got the call to represent his country for the first time.

“I’m at summer school taking a couple business classes, and I ride my bike home, and there’s a note on the door. ‘Stephen, congratulations! You have made the USA track team. You are to drive to Indianapolis tomorrow to fly to the USSR.’ And I thought, ‘YES!’”

Heidenreich had been selected to run the 1500 meters in a high-profile dual between the US and the Soviet Union. In front of a national television audience, the Watertown native made the most of his opportunity.

In the months after his success in Kiev, Stephen would go on to compete for the US three more times, including at the 1975 World Games in Rome and at the Olympic Invitational at New York’s Madison Square Garden. He finished on the podium in each race and was a favorite to qualify for the ‘76 Summer Olympics in Montreal.

“’75 put me really in a good position. I was ready, and I was training hard to become an Olympian.”

Heidenreich was poised to live out his dream, but during a routine evening run a few months before the ’76 Olympic trials, all that changed.

“I went home from the library one night, got into my USA uniform, went out for my run…Facing traffic, running on the left- hand side of the road…I could hear the roar of an engine behind me...And a car came out from the right-hand side. At the last moment, I tried to get out of the way. It hit me from behind. I flew over the car. My head slammed against the concrete. My skull split, my jaw broke, and I was left to die.”

“I’m rushed to the hospital. Dr. Rack, my neurosurgeon comes in...”

“He took a saw, removed part of my skull to let the brain swell…prepared brain surgery, removed some blood clots and tied the bleeding veins to stop the bleeding in the brain. Gave me a 5% chance to live. If I lived, most likely I would be vegetative.”

"Two weeks later, I started coming out of the coma, and I was the mental age of a two-year old in a twenty-three year old body, and I had to grow up again.”

Once cleared to leave the hospital in Indianapolis, Stephen returned home to Watertown. His mother quit her job as a special education teacher to put all her efforts into her son’s recovery.

“We would go for walks, and I would say, ‘Mom, what’s that?’ ‘That’s a tree, Stephen.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘That’s a chair.’ And the thing is, I knew what the things were. I knew the definition, but I couldn’t find the word. So, my brain started rewiring, and it’s absolutely miraculous.”

Heidenreich took the same drive he’d used to become a world-class athlete and applied it to his recovery. The results were remarkable.

“I was growing mental years in weeks. So I left the hospital in April at two, and by August, I’m 13.”

Stephen’s progress was such that he was eventually able to return to Indiana to not only finish his degree, but – incredibly – to resume running at a high level.

 “I finished that semester with a 3.67 GPA with permanent brain damage.  14 months after that accident, I ran the mile in 4:21, and I said, ‘I’m training for the ’80 Olympics.’”

Ultimately, Heidenreich’s renewed Olympic dream ended when the US boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow. Instead, Stephen turned his attention to life after competitive running and found success in the business and education world, authoring two books along the way.

In recent years, Stephen has moved back to South Dakota and has started competing in the state’s Senior Games. He’s shared his story nationwide as a motivational speaker, but his message resonates best with the youth he talks to in his home state. Youth – just like Stephen in ‘68 – with a dream.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re from South Dakota. You can still be successful if you are willing to do the work.”

Filed Under Midco Sports Magazine | Running/Track and Field