Editor’s note: This is the seventh of a “Where Are They Now?” series that will run each month during the Kenosha News’ 125th anniversary year. The series focuses on former Kenosha County standout athletes and their lives after sports.
Few people can claim that they were a three-time Olympian and competed for nearly 20 years at the top level of international competition in their sport.
Jim Heiring can.
Now 63 years old and retired from the Kenosha Police Department, Heiring cuts the lean figure of someone who’s spent a lifetime in running and still runs about four times per week.
It was walking, however, that brought Heiring to the height of his athletic achievements.
Specifically, race walking.
It may not be the most popular sport in terms of fan interest, but Kenosha has a long tradition of producing top-level race walkers, and Heiring may be No. 1 on that list.
The Bradford and UW-Parkside graduate made the U.S. Olympic team in 1980, ‘84 and ‘88, captured more than 20 national titles and represented the U.S. in more than 25 international competitions.
Heiring set seven American records during his lengthy career and is a charter member of both the Kenosha Unified School District and Parkside Athletic Halls of Fame.
That’s a resume that could match accomplished athletes in any sport.
So, why a niche sport like race walking?
“Well, it helped that I was good at it,” Heiring said from his Kenosha residence last week. “I started early, and I was a state champion in the Junior Olympics right away. That definitely was a motivating factor.
“But I just enjoyed ... it was kind of a combination of you had to be in shape like a runner, you did the same workout as a runner, but with the rules and things you had to maintain kind of a mental aspect to the sport, too. Not just go out there and run as fast as you can. Because you had to walk fast, but you had to stay within the rules.”
Heiring began running track and field and cross country at Washington Junior High and continued competing at Bradford under coach Jerry Verwey. He said he was never the team’s top distance runner, but race walking started captivating Heiring’s imagination while he was still in high school.
“I started in summer meets between my junior and senior year in high school,” he said. “I saw it on TV during the ‘72 Olympics. (American) Larry Young, he won a bronze medal (in the 50-kilometer walk) in Munich. (They) happened to show a little bit of it. I thought it was pretty cool, so I ended up (doing) a couple races at the state AAU Meet.”
Heiring came under the tutelage of the “godfather of Kenosha race walking.”
“Mike DeWitt, he was kind of like my first coach,” Heiring said. “He saw that I was interested. He took me aside and took me to a couple workouts and stuff like that. I ended up winning the State Junior Olympic Meet that year (1972).”
Heiring graduated from Bradford in 1973 and from Parkside in 1977 with an art degree. All the while, he kept up his Olympic aspirations in race walking.
He competed in the 1976 Olympic Trials as a junior at Parkside and just missed the cut. In 1980, after training in Colorado Springs, Colo., he won the Trials and said he was at the peak of his race walking career heading into the Summer Olympics in Moscow.
That’s when events beyond Heiring’s control interceded.
The U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games because the Soviet Union didn’t comply with President Jimmy Carter’s deadline to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Because of political events, U.S. Olympians that year were denied a chance to compete.
In what must be a bittersweet reminder for Heiring, he has a framed photo on his wall of him shaking Carter’s hand, abutted on each side by honorary medals given to the athletes who were denied competing that year.
Heiring said some of the U.S. Olympians tossed those medals into the Potomac River, but he didn’t see the point in that. Still, he’ll never forget the sting of that Olympic boycott.
“Very frustrating,” Heiring said. “It’s still a sore spot in my life. People ask me about it. I mean, I don’t dwell (on) it. I mean, we were just pawns being used by the president at the time.
“Whether you agreed with him or not, everybody thought it was pretty stupid. Like the Russians were really going to pull out of Afghanistan because you’re not going to send your Olympic team. I don’t think so. I think they had a bigger agenda.”
Heiring was lucky in one regard, though. Race walking is a sport of longevity, so it wasn’t his only Olympic chance.
“I was fortunate,” he said. “I was in a sport that has longevity. I wasn’t like a sprinter who has a very short window, so I was able to make the ‘84 team and then the ‘88 team. So I consider myself lucky. I had a pretty lengthy career.”
Heiring competed in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He felt he had a shot at a top-five finish, but he had developed knee problems by then and ran out of steam at the end of the race.
He proceeded to have two knee surgeries and didn’t think he’d try to make the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
But he had some motivators.
“I was going to quit, so I moved from Colorado Springs back to (Kenosha),” Heiring said. “Mike DeWitt kind of talked me into — and my wife (Linda), she was my girlfriend at the time — kind of talked me into, ‘Just give it one more shot.’”
So he did, and he made his third Olympic team. That year, he was just happy to make it and wasn’t concerned at all with where he’d finish.
“I knew once I crossed the finish line in Seoul I was done,” Heiring said.
He was left with a lifetime of Olympic memories, though, and talked about what it was like to walk into a stadium during the Opening Ceremonies.
“Los Angeles (in 1984) was really exciting,” Heiring said. “Everybody was, ‘U.S.A, U.S.A.’ Doing it there, just that feeling, you walk into the L.A. Coliseum with 94,000 people in the stands, and they’re all cheering for you. It was pretty cool.
“You’re humbled by the experience.”
With the competitive phase of his career over, Heiring stayed in Kenosha and began working for Nike — his sponsor — as something of an athlete rep. But around 1990, he wanted a career change.
“I just wasn’t making enough money,” Heiring said. “I had a wife, and I had a kid and another one on the way. Linda, my wife, she said, ‘You always wanted to be a cop. Your dad’s a cop, your brothers are cops. Why don’t you just go become a cop. You always wanted to.’ So I did.”
Heiring completed a 10-week academy and served on the Kenosha Police Department from 1992 until two years ago, when he retired as a lieutenant.
“I always enjoyed working with the younger guys and mentoring them, kind of being a steadying influence on them,” Heiring said. “When I retired, I was supervising the second-shift detectives. You get involved in the major crimes, and I always enjoyed working on cases with the detectives and stuff like that.”
Heiring remains active in the running community.
He and Linda work with Pete Henkes of Wisconsin Runner doing timing for events at Parkside’s Wayne E. Dannehl National Cross Country Course.
Heiring also works with Christian Life track and cross country coach Brian Thomas to hold running camps at the Boys and Girls Club and last year assisted Thomas with the Eagles.
“He’s one guy,” Heiring said. “He’s trying to coach a team and stuff. So I said, ‘Yeah, I’d be glad to help you.’ I like working with the kids.
“I’ve got a lot of knowledge and a lot of things I can share, not only running and training-wise, but just getting yourself mentally ready for races and things like that.”
Married for 32 years, Jim and Linda Heiring have two sons, Aaron, 29, and Sam, 27. They also have two grandchildren, 5 and 3 years old.
And they still run.
While he no longer race walks, Heiring doesn’t plan to stop running anytime soon. Whether it’s high school, college, the Olympics or a morning jog with your significant other, running is a lifelong endeavor.
“Whether it’s running or walking, they’re lifetime activities,” Heiring said. “It isn’t like when you play a team sport like basketball or baseball. You’re limited to what you can do, and your body kind of limits you, too.
“But running, walking, those are things you can do forever. I always loved the fact about running, as a sport, the stopwatch doesn’t lie. ... If you’re faster (than the other guy), you’re faster. ... It’s just you. I just love the fact that a stopwatch is your best barometer of where you’re at.
“I don’t ever want to stop, unless I have to.”