By: Michael D. McClellan
It’s two hours before the biggest race of your life and you’ve just seen death.
How do you compete when it goes down like this?
You’ve sacrificed large swaths of your childhood and even larger chunks of your adolescence in exchange for a place at the top of your sport’s elite, and now, with the whole world watching, with the payoff for all that hard work a mere 500 meters away, you’ve got to somehow cope with the grimmest news of your young life. You toe the line and try to convince yourself that you can do this, that you can hold it together long enough to win this race for your sister. Thirty-six seconds and change is all that separates you from making good on that promise. Thirty-six seconds and change and you can finally let go.
But how do you skate with a broken heart?
The news comes on the morning of your big moment and it rattles you to the core. As a 16-year-old high school sophomore, you’d set a junior world record in the 500 in your first international competition. Two years later, you’d made U.S. Olympic team. Competing in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, you surprised everyone by finishing fourth in the 500, just missing out on a medal. By the time Calgary rolls around you’re setting world sprint records and dominating World Cup events the way Carl Lewis dominates the 100 meter dash. Calgary was supposed to be a coronation. A celebration. Instead, your mind is a mess and your stomach is in knots. You learn the hard way how fragile life can be, and it buckles you. You’re twenty-two, as fast as a bullet on the ice and bulletproof off of it. You’ve never had to deal with death. Now you’ve gotten the worst news possible, and you’ve had all of two hours to pull yourself together, and just when you think you’ve built a mental flood wall strong enough to keep the sorrow at bay – at least long enough to skate those thirty-six seconds and change – the thought of Jane breaches the barrier and the pain seeps back in.
How can she be gone?
You’re here in Calgary, on this Olympic stage, because of her – because she’d taken you outside on a cold Wisconsin winter day all those years ago and introduced you to skating. You were only four years old at the time, and in your universe Jane was the sun. Skating transformed your life. Jane did that for you. The past year you’ve had to watch helplessly as the leukemia aggressively transformed Jane’s life in its own insidious ways – from a life with endless possibility to one pockmarked with painful bone marrow transplants and increasingly grim test results. You’ve trained and competed and donated platelets. You’ve prayed for your sister, laughed with her, supported her, cried with her…and through it all you’ve stayed focused on the task at hand, because that’s what Jane has wanted you to do. It’s the only reason you’re in Calgary today and not back home in Wisconsin with her.
And then, on the morning of the race of your life, the news of Jane’s death levels you.
Thirty-six seconds and change.
You toe the line and wait for the start of the second heat.
A lifetime of hard work boils down to this. A year ago the thought of sprinting for an Olympic medal made you smile. Now it’s caked with dread.
Thirty-six seconds and change.
Your body might be here in Calgary, but your mind is back home in West Allis, 2,500 kilometers away.
~ ~ ~
You false start.
You never false start.
Yasushi Kuroiwa of Japan is in the lane next to you, but he’s not in your league. Not even close. You regroup. The bell rings. You get off cleanly but your massive thighs are sluggish, your trademark explosiveness MIA. Maybe you don’t have it today. Who would blame you? You’re on the inside lane, Kuroiwa to your right, and as you reach the first turn you start to find your groove. That split second of doubt evaporates. You enter that first turn like you’ve entered dozens of turns on the World Cup circuit, a mix of speed and power and technical perfection that Kuroiwa will be unable to match over the full 500 meters.
And then, five strides into that first turn, the unthinkable happens.
Your instinct is to steady yourself with your left hand, but it’s too late – you momentum drives you to the ice and whips your legs around in a centrifugal blur. The roar of the crowd is instantly transformed into an elongated OOOOOOHHH, the sound gathering force when you clip Kuroiwa’s skate and reaching crescendo when you careen hard off the wall’s protective foam padding.
And just like that, it’s over.
You pop up off the ice in disbelief, your arms raised skyward for an instant, your eyes fixed on the Olympic Oval’s drab gray ceiling. You remove your racing cap and bury your head in your hands. Four years ago, in Sarajevo, you’d been an 18-year-old unknown. No one expected you to medal. You missed out on the bronze by 16-hundredths of a second, a tough break but hardly the end of the world. You’d skated your best and come up just short, and you’d gone home without a shred of doubt or disappointment.
Calgary was supposed to be a fairy tale. Instead, you can only watch as East Germany’s Uwe-Jens Mey wins the gold medal and 36 other skaters finish ahead of your DNF. Jane’s death turns you into a household name. Your teammates offer their support. Complete strangers break down and cry. You’re numb inside but you can’t mourn; you’ve got to hold it together long enough to skate the 1,000 meters four days later, and when you blister the first 600 meters in world record time, it looks as if this race – a race you dedicate to Jane – is going to be the one that honors her memory with Olympic gold.
And then, with one lap remaining, you slip again.
The expression on your face says it all. You spin to a stop and sit there on the ice, legs extended, head in the palms of your hands, the weight of the world crashing down on you. A thousand what-ifs run through your mind by the time you finally gather the strength to stand, but there’s only one thing you know with absolute certainty.
It’s time to go home.
~ ~ ~
Dan Jansen was a rocket ship on skates, his World Cup brilliance long overshadowed by those heartbreaking slips on the Olympic stage. He was Scott Norwood before Scott Norwood, the kicker whose field goal attempt sailed wide right and sealed the first of four consecutive Super Bowl defeats for the Buffalo Bills. The Olympics were Jansen’s Super Bowl. His own personal wide right. Failure begetting failure begetting failure, the pain and disappointment amplified by the fact that he was the best speed skater on the planet until the Olympics rolled around. Sarajevo. Calgary. Albertville. Lillehammer. Close calls, heartbreaking falls and a reputation for choking with the stakes the highest, Jansen’s repeated Olympic failures were the lone blemish on an otherwise sterling résumé, one that included eight world records, 46 World Cup wins, 7 overall World Cup titles and two World Sprint Championships.
Six years to the day that Jansen’s slip cost him the 500 in Calgary, Jansen was on a world record pace in the same event at Lillehammer when he slipped again, dropping him to eighth place and out of medal contention. He had one more opportunity in the 1,000, but he would now have to race it with another mistake gnawing at his confidence – and with the pressure of knowing that this would be his final Olympic race. Sure, we hoped and we prayed that Jansen’s story would end happily ever after, but deep down we knew how this Shakespearean tragedy would play out. Dan Jansen was going to slip again, and he was going to go down as the guy who, try as he might, simply couldn’t get it done.
The best that never was.
~ ~ ~
The genesis of Jansen’s story can be traced to West Allis, where he was the youngest of nine children born to Harry and Geraldine, hardworking Midwesterners who had first dropped him off at the rink outside Milwaukee as a four-year-old rather than hiring a sitter to take care of him. His connection to the ice was instantaneous.
“That’s all it took,” Jansen begins. “From then on, it was me going along to the rink with my brother and sisters whenever they skated. That’s really how I started out, just me tagging along and wanting to be a part of it. I literally started on double runners. I was four years old and racing by the time I finished that first year on ice.”
Harry Jansen was a police officer, and Gerry Jansen, a nurse. Money was tight with a family that large, especially with all of the sports and extracurricular activities going on at the time. Everyone, it seemed, was into skating, but it was Dan who showed the most promise.
“I was the baby of the family – number nine overall. All of my siblings skated at one point in their life – some didn’t stay with it for very long, and others were quite good and skated for a long time. My brother also competed on the international level. They were all very supportive of me when I took it further, because they understood the ups and downs that went along with it, and all of the sacrifices that had to be made. They were a big part of my team.”
Jansen’s childhood revolved around the rink, regardless of the season.
“Now it’s called long track and short track, but back then it was just indoor and outdoor,” he explains. “We would skate indoors until the middle of November, and then we would move outdoors until the cold went away, and then we would move back indoors for the indoor season. I loved it all, but the biggest memories for me were of skating outside in the cold weather. We loved it, but it was cold, and it was windy. I remember traveling on the weekends to the meets and competitions, and those were held on frozen lakes and ponds. Just great memories. If you compare it to nowadays, many of the skaters have never even skated outdoors. But that’s how we grew up doing it, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The Jansens were clean-cut and close-knit, with Harry and Gerry doing their best to juggle evening and weekend schedules to make sure that all of their children were athletically and socially active. Their sacrifices allowed the Jansen clan to dream, and their ability to stretch a dollar in pursuit of those dreams played a big part in Dan’s rise through the junior speed skating ranks.
“It wouldn’t have been a career without my parents. They were extremely supportive and made incredible sacrifices in order for me to pursue my dream. My success was made possible through them – the opportunity to grow as a skater was because of them, and certainly the opportunity to continue competing in speed skating was because of them. – Dan Jansen
“It wouldn’t have been a career without my parents,” Jansen says plainly. “They were extremely supportive and made incredible sacrifices in order for me to pursue my dream. My success was made possible through them – the opportunity to grow as a skater was because of them, and certainly the opportunity to continue competing in speed skating was because of them.
“The financial impact on the family budget was huge, especially with all of the travel and time away from home and everything else that goes along with trying to become an elite athlete. Believe me, it was a burden. I honestly don’t know how, looking back, with nine kids…I don’t know where they came up with the money to support me doing what I did. We had to get creative – we held fundraisers and did other things to make money, anything to help take some of that burden off of them. They made it work somehow. It’s really pretty remarkable.”
Wisconsin is known as America’s Dairyland, but it’s also a place where winters are long and frozen lakes are plentiful, making it the perfect breeding ground for hockey players. But in the little corner of suburban Milwaukee that is West Allis, kids who are more inclined to forgo clunky hockey skates in favor of the longer blades of speed skates. The Jansens were no exception; Jansen’s three brothers and five sisters all skated competitively.
“Skating is big in West Allis, and our parents supported our decisions to skate,” Jansen says. “With that said, we were fortunate in that they never pushed any of us with the sports that we played. If there was a certain direction that I wanted to go in, they were fine with it even if they might not have agreed. If I wanted to quit skating and play football – I played football in high school – they weren’t going to stand in my way or try to influence my decision. So I made my own decision on which sport to choose, and when I chose speed skating over football they never questioned it. They always supported my passion for skating.”
Jansen was good at football, but he was exceptional at skating. He progressed quickly, and within four years was winning national meets in his age group. He was in contention for the 1977 national championship, when he was just eleven years old, but slipped on a lane marker, lost by one point and cried all the way home. It was during this teachable moment that his father helped put the loss in perspective, explaining that there was more to life than skating around in circles. It was a life lesson that would later provide strength with Jane at her sickest.
By the age of sixteen he was fully focused on skating, and was competing overseas against the world’s best junior skaters. He set a junior world record in a 500-meter event, and finished ninth overall 1983. His success in the shorter-distance events encouraged Jansen to concentrate on sprinting.
“To become elite – at least for me – took a total commitment to training, practice, and nutrition,” Jansen says. “Becoming the one of the best at something also takes dedication and determination. There’s a lot of hard work involved, a lot of sacrifices. It goes all the way back to the early days, back to when I was four, or five, or six years old. Certainly, I didn’t have any aspirations of becoming an elite skater at that point, but when I look back, all of the time that I spent on the ice at a very young age provided a great foundation for what I was to become. As I grew stronger and my body matured, I benefited from all of those lessons that I learned along the way.
“And like I said before, you need a support system. It means everything. My dad worked two and three jobs just to support us all. He was a police officer, and I remember that he would come home after the night shift, and then he would go downstairs and sharpen all of our skates for our competitions every weekend. My parents would drive us all over the Midwest – up to Minnesota, down to Chicago, over into Michigan, and to all those little towns in Wisconsin. That’s how my parents would spend their weekends, driving us around and watching us race. My father really had no other life as far as I know – he worked and worked, and then he made sure that he was with us while we were doing our thing on the weekend. My mom made the same sacrifices as well. She was a nurse who worked hard during the week and then traveled with us on the weekend. It was that way all the time, especially during the winter months.”
~ ~ ~
So much has changed since the Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo. Back in 1984, the winner’s podium celebrated the best of the best. Years later it would be used by the Bosnian army to execute prisoners during the war. Today, the Olympic facilities are crumbling reminders of both: Up in the hills above the Bosnian capital is the bobsled and luge track, which was later used as a Bosnian-Serb artillery stronghold during the war. The graffiti-stained track is overgrown with weeds, and a catchall for everything from natural sediment to man-made debris, with the spectator area below it now nothing but a bombed out, crumbling hull. Broken bottles litter the ground around the ruins. There’s a graveyard at the Igman Ski Center, honoring the Bosnian soldiers who lost their lives during the 1992–1995 war. Behind it, red warning signs dot the hills where Bosnian-Serbs planted thousands of mines, many of which were left unexploded in the now off-limit areas.
Sarajevo was a far different place in 1984. The first Winter Games held in a communist country, Sarajevo also marked the first Olympic confrontation of Soviet and American athletes since the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Games. The competitions themselves were both spectacular and memorable – this was the Olympics of British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, American skiers “Wild Bill” Johnson and Debbie Armstrong, and East German skaters Katarina Witt and Karin Enke – and into this theatre stepped Jansen, wide-eyed and eager, and the youngest speed skater to make the Olympic team.
“It was such a weird feeling seeing people in person that I’d watched on television, and then it was even stranger interacting with them in the village or in the cafeteria. One minute you’re turning on the TV and watching their highlights like everyone else, and the next you’re marching with them during the opening ceremonies.” – Dan Jansen
“I guess the way that I would describe that experience is like this: Take any 18-year-old and have them imagine what it would be like to compete in the Olympics,” Jansen says. “It’s awe-inspiring. It’s thrilling. It’s a dream come true. And that’s what it was for me, but it was even better than that. It was such a weird feeling seeing people in person that I’d watched on television, and then it was even stranger interacting with them in the village or in the cafeteria. One minute you’re turning on the TV and watching their highlights like everyone else, and the next you’re marching with them during the opening ceremonies. It was surreal. And then, just the whole Olympic experience – taking part in the opening ceremony, walking into the stadium behind the American flag…I would say that you’re kind of in awe, and maybe even a little overwhelmed by the spectacle of the whole thing, and even slightly intimidated with all that went along with representing the United States in the Olympics. But the funny thing is, it wasn’t like that on the ice. I was focused, and I wasn’t nervous at all. I managed to compete very well.”
It helped having a support system with him – Team Jansen.
“My mom and dad both came to Sarajevo in 1984,” Jansen says proudly. “It was important having family close, because they really helped me to enjoy the moment. My brother Mike was there, too. He showed up the day before my race and surprised me, so that was pretty special. Like I said, he was a really good skater in his own right, and he competed at a very high level. He just missed out on qualifying for the Olympic team.”
Going into his first Olympic Games, Jansen knew the margin for error was razor thin.
“It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t competed in speed skating, because it’s such a technical sport,” Jansen says. “And even then when you put together the perfect technical race, there’s always the chance that one little slip can happen that changes everything. It’s ice. And if it’s outdoors, it could be a gust of wind or who knows what. But that’s okay, because that’s part of the sport. Speed skaters are used to that.”
Missing out on the bronze medal, Jansen wasted little time regrouping. His speed skating career was just lifting off, The Fall a story for another Olympics, his Ali-Frazier rivalry with Uwe-Jens Mey still somewhere off in the distance.
“For me at that point, it wasn’t so much that I missed a medal from something technical. I skated great for what I had at that time in my life. That was a really good outcome for me, because nobody really expected me to do that well in my first Olympic Games. ” – Dan Jansen
“For me at that point, it wasn’t so much that I missed a medal from something technical. I skated great for what I had at that time in my life. That was a really good outcome for me, because nobody really expected me to do that well in my first Olympic Games. As a result I almost won a medal, so it wasn’t a disappointment for me at all. You always have those thoughts that cross your mind, the what-ifs. What if I had done this differently? What if I had done that instead of the other? But at the end of the day, it is what it is. I couldn’t have done anything differently, or better. It was a good, solid race, and that was all I had to give at that point in my career.”
Back home in West Allis, Jansen received a hero’s welcome.
“I guess it became kind of a big deal locally, because the community had this kid who went to the Olympics, so it was noticeable from that standpoint. But it never got to the level where there was any real amount of fame. It was more a case of people recognizing that this Dan Jansen kid is good and he went to the Olympics. I had a few people tell me that it was too bad that I didn’t win a medal, and that was a little confusing to me because being in Sarajevo and representing the United States was major accomplishment in itself. But that’s when you learn that people really don’t understand what goes into it all. They don’t see the hours of sacrifice on the ice, and they don’t get what an honor it is just to be a part of the U.S. Olympic Team and representing your country.”
Unfazed by coming up short, Jansen threw himself into preparing for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. He recovered from hamstring injuries in both of his legs to win the silver medal in the 500 at the 1985 world sprints. In 1986, he won a medal in every event he raced and became the first American to skate the 500 in under thirty-seven seconds. A year away from Calgary, a bout with mononucleosis zapped his strength and stamina, casting the first hint of doubt about the upcoming Games, and then Jane’s diagnosis hits like a ton of bricks.
“It was a hard year all the way around. The twelve months leading up to Calgary was when Jane was diagnosed with cancer…I went through a whole summer of trying to train while also trying to support Jane. It was a difficult period. She was going through her bone marrow transplants, so I was donating platelets and traveling to Seattle to be with her, and at the same time I’m training for the upcoming Olympics.” – Dan Jansen
“It was a hard year all the way around,” Jansen concedes. “The twelve months leading up to Calgary was when Jane was diagnosed with cancer…she was diagnosed in January, 1987. I was ill as well – I had mono – and because of that I was never really at full strength, which at times translated into sub-par performances on the ice. I just didn’t have a good season. I went through a whole summer of trying to train while also trying to support Jane. It was a difficult period. She was going through her bone marrow transplants, so I was donating platelets and traveling to Seattle to be with her, and at the same time I’m training for the upcoming Olympics.
“I was healthy when the next season started, and suddenly I’m winning all of the World Cups. I also won the Speed Skating World Championship the week before the Olympic Games – thank God they were held in Milwaukee, because that meant I didn’t have to travel and I could spend all of my free time with Jane. But then I had to leave her when I went to Calgary with the Olympic Team. I was the clear favorite in Calgary. I was expected to win. That was my mindset, too. Off the ice, I expected to see Jane in March when the season was over. One week later she was gone, passing away on the day of my race.”
Jane’s passing, on Valentine’s Day, was the hardest blow of Jansen’s life.
“It was impossible to focus,” he says. “That’s not an excuse, but it didn’t go very well for me. I tried. But nobody in Calgary had ever been in that position before, so there was nobody that I could lean on for advice. I just did what I thought I should do – which we decided as a family – and that was to go out and try my best, because that’s what Jane would have wanted. And I did. With having said that, I didn’t have any of that physical or mental preparation that you would normally have on race day. I just figured that I would go out there and do what I always did, but my level of focus wasn’t where it needed to be. And with speed skating, when your mind isn’t all there it really shows.”
With four days to prepare for the 1,000 meters, Jansen appeared ready to compete. Looks, however, can be deceiving. He was an emotional train wreck. His fall at the 600 meter mark sealed the most miserable week of his life.
“It was very disappointing, but I was empty inside and skating was really the furthest thing from my mind,” he says. “After that second fall, it was just time. I needed to go home. I felt like I’d kept my brothers and sisters that were in Calgary with me long enough, and we all needed to get back and say goodbye to Jane. We left almost immediately after that race; there was a local company in Wisconsin that donated the use of its airplane to us, so we flew home that night and prepared for the funeral, which was held a couple of days later. It was just time to try and say our goodbyes. It was very hard. Anybody who has lost a family member knows what that’s like.”
Jansen’s heart and resolve not only earned him the admiration of millions – he received more than seven thousand letters in the weeks immediately after the Games – it also resulted in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Spirit Award, an award that goes to the U.S. Olympian who exhibits the Olympic ideal, overcomes adversity and exhibits extraordinary persistence and determination. Jansen accepted the award in memory of his sister.
“It meant a lot to me then, and it still means a lot today,” he says. “It was an unbelievably nice gesture to know that the other members of the team – and not just the speed skating team, but the whole U.S. Olympic Team and U.S. Olympic Committee – recognized what I was going through. It was special to receive their support in the form of that award. Like I said, it meant a lot to me and still does to this day. It wasn’t like all was suddenly good in the world, but it certainly helped ease the pain a little bit. It let me know that there were a lot of people supporting our family during this difficult time. It was very moving to get that kind of support and recognition from my Olympic teammates.”
Just three weeks after the Olympics, Jansen bounced back to win a World Cup 500-meter race in Savalen, Norway, and placed second in the 1,000.
“I took half of the next year off,” Jansen says. “I returned to Calgary and went to school. I didn’t compete because my focus was on taking classes and getting my education. It was difficult because everything was still so fresh and the emotions were still very raw. I tried to block a lot of it out. To a degree I was able to do that, but going back to Calgary was a very difficult time for me.”
When Jansen finally returned to the ice later that year, he was in a healthier place, both physically and mentally. In December 1991, he skated the fastest 500 meters of the season, winning the U.S. Olympic Trials at 36.59 seconds in Milwaukee. The following month in Davos, Switzerland, he set the 500-meter world record at 36.41, beating the record set a week earlier by Uwe-Jens Mey, now Jansen’s top rival for the title of world’s best sprinter.
“Everything on the ice kept going well. Each year got a little bit better, and I continued to win medals on the World Cup circuit. I was also having success at the World Championships, so everything was coming together leading up to Albertville Olympics in 1992. I had also set a world record two weeks before the Games began, so I felt like I was peaking at just the right time.”
“Everything on the ice kept going well. Each year got a little bit better and I continued to win medals on the World Cup circuit. I was also having success at the World Championships, so everything was coming together leading up to Albertville Olympics in 1992. I had also set a world record two weeks before the Games began, so I felt like I was peaking at just the right time. That’s when I decided to shut it down and rest my body before the start of the Games, but in retrospect I feel like I kind of rushed into rest mode.”
To most experts, Albertville seemed the perfect place for Jansen to finally exorcise his Olympic demons, and even Jansen himself felt poised to do big things. He said he felt good when he woke up Saturday on morning of the 500. He said Calgary was the farthest thing from his mind. He said he was convinced silver would be the lowest value metal he could win. But when he got to the Olympic ice rink, an outdoor oval that would be turned into a running track after the Games, it was raining – the first sign that the skating gods weren’t sitting with the fans waving the homemade “Go Dan,” signs clustered among a sea of U.S. umbrellas in the stands.
“Let’s just say that it wasn’t a favorable turn of events,” he says, smiling wryly.
It turns out that rain is not a sprinter’s ideal weather. Rain creates small bumps – “pebbles,” the skaters call them – that don’t allow for the best grip on the ice, especially with the skates used back then. Courses with pebbles favor lighter, finesse-type skaters – skaters more the size of the Japanese. Jansen, at six feet and just under 200 pounds, was a thickly muscled sprinter who’d been dominating the finesse skaters on the World Cup circuit. But not on this day. Used to digging his skates into the ice to generate thrust, Jansen wasn’t able to execute that technique as effectively in the rain. Instead, it was the Japanese who excelled in the unfavorable conditions, with Toshiyuki Kuroiwa and Junichi Inoue winning the silver and bronze medals, placing just behind the winner, Uwe-Jens Mey.
“He certainly should have won a medal,” Mey said at the time. “I feel sorry for him. The Olympics don’t obey regular rules.”
Jansen followed up that fourth place finish by finishing 26th in the 1,000, completing the washout.
“I regret making the decision to rest,” he says. “I came in a little flat, and I just wasn’t in top form for those Olympic Games. I thought I was ready – I was at the top of my game just two weeks before and had that world record to prove it, but I wasn’t the same skater in Albertville. To finished fourth again and out of medal contention was very disappointing.
“Looking back, I also think I under-trained. We were fully prepared just two weeks before Albertville. At that point I can safely say that we hadn’t over-trained or under-trained. We were right on track. When I set that world record we’d trained really hard so I decided to cut back. The plan was to be as fresh as possible at the start of the Games, and I felt like I’d be flying on the ice if I gave my body some time to recover. Looking back now, we cut it back a little too much.”
“Looking back, I also think I under-trained. We were fully prepared just two weeks before Albertville. At that point I can safely say that we hadn’t over-trained or under-trained. We were right on track. When I set that world record we’d trained really hard so I decided to cut back. The plan was to be as fresh as possible at the start of the Games, and I felt like I’d be flying on the ice if I gave my body some time to recover. Looking back now, we cut it back a little too much.” – Dan Jansen
For Jansen, Albertville was as disorienting as it was fruitless.
“The whole experience was surreal and kept me off-balance in a lot of ways,” he says. “We practiced on a track in Italy, which wasn’t familiar to us at all. We usually went to Germany when we were in Europe, but we weren’t able to go there and practice like we normally did. When we arrived in Albertville, we quickly learned that the track was not a good track – it wasn’t even a permanent track. It was thrown together for the Games and torn down immediately afterwards. And overall, it just didn’t feel like an Olympics – we had strange weather, and we felt like the people really didn’t want us there. We never felt welcome in Albertville. So it turned out to be a not-so-good experience for me. Don’t get me wrong; it was still the Olympics and I was still very thankful to be, and extremely honored to represent my country. From a competition standpoint, you just want that to be at your peak physically, emotionally, and mentally. I just feel any of that in ‘92.”
Albertville marked the last time the Winter Olympics was held in the same calendar year as the Summer Olympics. Beginning with Lillehammer in ’94, the events were spaced two years apart. Jansen, who’d exited France with a growing reputation as a choke artist, attacked the World Cup circuit with a different attitude and determination. Between the 1992 and 1994 Olympics, he was the only skater to break 36 seconds in the 500 meters, doing so four times. In 1994, he won his second World Sprint Championship title, and arrived at the 1994 Winter Olympics for one final attempt at an Olympic medal. Many speculated that the compressed timeframe between Olympics would help Jansen, both physically and mentally, given his advancing age as a speed skater and the heartbreak he’d endured on the big stage.
“The quick turnaround between Olympics was nice, because I didn’t have as long to dwell on the disappointment in Albertville. I feel like I would have been in top form even if Lillehammer had been held four years later. I still was improving, even when I retired. But it was great to have another Games in two years, because after the disappointment of coming up short I was ready to go again. I had improved so much during the two seasons between Albertville and Lillehammer, and I was skating better than I had ever skated. I went into the Lillehammer Olympics with tons of confidence.”
A major part of that confidence was directly related to training. Peter Mueller, the 1976 gold medalist at Innsbruck, was pushing Jansen harder than ever before. Gone were the days of focusing on the 500 and treating the 1,000 as an afterthought.
“We worked really hard on the 1000-meter event,” Jansen says, “and we trusted that it would be enough, and that it wouldn’t hurt our chances in the 500. We actually trained as if we were competing in the 1,500, so that the 1000-meter result would be better. We were able to keep the speed in the 500, so I think we trained smart. Mentally, we worked for two solid years to just get into a better state of mind when I stepped to the line in the 1000-meter. I hadn’t always had the most confidence at that distance, but all of that preparation had me believing in myself for that race. It’s a good thing that I did work so hard on that event, because it turns out that I needed to. That was my last chance to win a medal after what happened in the 500.”
Improbably – or as his critics would say, predictably – Jansen slipped on the final turn in the 500, touching the ice with his hand and finishing eighth. That the 500 in Lillehammer took place exactly six years to the day that Jane had died, on Valentine’s Day, only added to the disappointment. Suddenly, a snake bit Jansen had one last opportunity for an Olympic medal.
“I don’t know that I felt snake bit,” Jansen counters. “I certainly wondered if it was meant to be, but nobody did anything to me to cost me a medal in any of those Olympic Games. It was just tough luck. That’s speed skating. One little slip can cost you, and it did in the 500 at Lillehammer. But I think the way that I prepared for the 1000-meter made up for all of the bad luck leading up to that event. It all came together because I was so prepared physically, mentally, and emotionally. That hadn’t always been the case in the 1000, but this time I believed that I was good enough to win. My confidence was at an all-time high because I had shown good results leading up to the 1000, especially in December, so I had a lot of good things going on in the back of my mind. I may not have been known for the 1000, but I knew that I could win a medal. I knew that I could go to these Olympic Games and win that race.”
If the world expected Jansen to crumble from the pressure of another high stakes slip in the 500, he certainly wasn’t showing it. In anything, it looked as if a giant invisible weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
“Ultimately, I just had to go out there and skate my best, and let the results be what they may. At some point you have to accept whatever happens, good or bad, and I was prepared to deal with it either way. I think that helped to diffuse any pressure that may have been building.” – Dan Jansen
“Ultimately, I just had to go out there and skate my best, and let the results be what they may. At some point you have to accept whatever happens, good or bad, and I was prepared to deal with it either way. I think that helped to diffuse any pressure that may have been building.”
It certainly helped having Mueller in his camp, especially during those long, agonizing hours between events. He understood the complex calculus running around in Jansen’s head – the feelings of letting down the people who mattered to him most, the falls and out-of-the-money finishes, the energy drain that comes from answering the same questions thousands of times.
“Pete is a great motivator,” Jansen says. “He just sort of let me overcome the disappointment on my own in terms, which really helped me get past the 500. He understood that it hurt. I could tell that it hurt him as well, but he also understood that I was skating extremely well, and he didn’t let me forget that. He kept reminding me that it was just a slip, but that I’d been flying on the ice up to that point. It just clicked. I’d been flying on ice for the past two weeks. I just won the World Championships again. I’d lowered the world record. So nobody was skating better than I was at that point. But the mind is a funny thing, and sometimes you need to be reminded of things like that, and Pete did that every day. That’s why he’s such a great motivator, but more than that, that’s why he became a great friend as well.”
Jansen’s Olympic history in the 1,000 was abysmal: a 16th, a fall, a 26th. He could open up to 600 meters, but the rocket fuel that made him such a talented sprinter would quickly burn out. To those closest to Jansen, however, something about racing the 1,000 in Lillehammer felt different. That Mueller had placed a premium on conditioning certainly played a part, as had Jansen’s decision to consult with a sports psychologist in the run-up to the Games, but the biggest difference-maker was having his wife and eight-month-old daughter Jane in Norway to help Jansen keep it all in perspective.
“Fatherhood changed everything. It was my last Olympic race, but I was prepared for whatever happened. Another slip, another fall, or finishing out of medal contention didn’t matter. When you become a parent, it changes how you look at everything.” – Dan Jansen
“Fatherhood changed everything. It was my last Olympic race, but I was prepared for whatever happened. Another slip, another fall, or finishing out of medal contention didn’t matter. When you become a parent, it changes how you look at everything.”
Paired with Junichi Inoue of Japan, there was a certain looseness to his start that hadn’t been present in previous races. Instead of pushing too hard from the bell, he held back, covering the first 200 meters in 16.71, not world record pace but fast enough to push him to the top of the leader board. Where losing his sister in 1988 had proved debilitating, he suddenly seemed liberated from all of the expectations that had been placed on him. He didn’t press. Instead, Jansen let the race come to him. At the 400-meter mark, where the skaters cross over from one lane to the other, Jansen was able to ride briefly in Inoue’s slipstream and slingshot into the next turn. It was enough to cause those in the Jansen camp to believe, if only for a moment, that this was really happening, that Dan Jansen, the hard luck king, was suddenly on the verge of an historic breakthrough.
“It was all finally coming together for me,” Jansen says quickly. “It was the strongest that I’d ever raced at that distance. It was the smartest, too.”
In control but now skating on the inside lane where the turns are tighter and the G forces are heavier, Jansen’s family knew that he’d just entered speed skating’s danger zone, the place that posed the most risk to the final race of his Olympic career. Then, on the next-to-last turn, it happened again, another Jansen slip, his left hand barely grazing the ice, a mistake that cost him two, perhaps three hundredths of a second.
Groans went up in the crowd.
The old Dan Jansen would have panicked and tried to recover too quickly, but the new Dan Jansen, the father with nothing to lose and everything to gain? He simply took the misstep in stride and skated through it.
“The 1000 is a little bit longer race, so there’s a little bit more that you can get away with,” Jansen says. “The chance of something happening did creep into my mind, especially with it being my last race and because of my slip in the 500. But I was able to keep my composure and recover. When I slipped in the 500 I panicked. I tried to get the time back right away because you have to in that race, but I just kept slipping. My skates didn’t grip the ice in that last turn. When I slipped in the 1000, that moment instantaneously went through my head, but I thought, ‘Just don’t panic. Don’t try to get this back too fast, just carry your speed to the end of this turn and then accelerate.’ It worked. Strangely enough, I think I learned a little bit from my slip in the 500.”
The raucous crowd cheered wildly as Jansen opened it up on the straightaway. Mueller was as animated as he’d ever been, nearly clapping his protégé on the back as Jansen whizzed by. And when Jansen crossed the finish line with a time of 1:12.43, not only had he beaten out heavy favorite Igor Zhelezovsky of Belarus and Russia’s Sergei Klevchenya to capture gold in his final race, he’d broken the world record in an event that seemed ill-suited to his strengths.
“Overwhelming, that’s all I can say about that moment. I just said a little prayer of thanks and thought about Jane. I know she would have been proud of me. And I knew that she was there somewhere.” – Dan Jansen
“Overwhelming, that’s all I can say about that moment.” He pauses, and then: “I just said a little prayer of thanks and thought about Jane. I know she would have been proud of me. And I knew that she was there somewhere.”
The win also overwhelmed his wife Robin, who hyperventilated and had to be rushed for treatment. Hamar Olympic Hall was an intoxicating brew of wild celebration and unrestrained tears, as Americans, Norwegians and fans from many other countries showered Jansen with love. People back home in West Allis and neighboring Milwaukee took to the streets to cheer their favorite son. Living rooms across the U.S. – scratch that, around the globe – were buzzing over the fact that, in his final Olympic race, Dan Jansen had finally struck gold.
“It’s hard to describe that feeling,” Jansen confesses. “Anyone who’s ever won an Olympic medal can try to describe what it feels like – getting up there on that podium, hearing the national anthem – but words can’t do justice to the emotions that are going through you at that time. I never felt more patriotic than I did that day. I never appreciated our national anthem is much as I did that day. I’d been up there dozens of times at part of the World Cup, but never at the Olympics, so this had so much more meaning. As I’ve said, other medalists can try to tell you what it feels like, but I’d guess that there are very few, probably, that have had the emotions that I did after going through everything that I went through with my sister and all of the disappointment in the Olympics leading up to that moment.”
Jansen, visibly moved in the moments after the win, waved to the sky in memory of his sister as he took that now iconic victory lap in Lillehammer with eight-month-old daughter Jane in his arms.
“One of the biggest moments in my life,” Jansen says. “To be able to take that lap with Jane meant everything.”
His mind was still spinning when he stepped up on that podium.
“I just remember feeling so much pride. The national anthem is a short song, and a lot goes through your mind in that short period of time – a lot of things that we’ve talked about tonight. You remember moments from your childhood. You remember racing outside on the lake. You remember everyone who’s ever helped out in any capacity, when you’re up there in that moment you realize that it’s not really about you, it’s about all of those people who’ve sacrificed to help you live your dream.” – Dan Jansen
“I just remember feeling so much pride,” Jansen says. “The national anthem is a short song, and a lot goes through your mind in that short period of time – a lot of things that we’ve talked about tonight. You remember moments from your childhood. You remember racing outside on the lake. You remember everyone who’s ever helped out in any capacity, when you’re up there in that moment you realize that it’s not really about you, it’s about all of those people who’ve sacrificed to help you live your dream.”
If there were any doubts about the significance of Jansen’s victory, those were erased by the congratulatory phone call that he received from President Clinton shortly after the medal ceremony.
“It was cool!” Jansen says proudly. “It happened during a press conference. Somebody handed me a cell phone and said, ‘Hold for the president.’ So I had to tell the reporters that I had to hold off on answering their questions because I’ve got to talk to the president. That got a big laugh out of everyone. It was pretty special moment. It was something I’d never even considered happening. You can dream about the Olympics and winning medals and all of that, but having a conversation with the President of the United States is something that never entered my mind. It was an amazing moment, and it just added to how special it was to win a gold medal.”
~ ~ ~
The victory meant that the low-key Jansen could no longer fade into the background. His story of tragedy, perseverance, and triumph created worldwide buzz. His clean cut image and handsome good looks made him a hit from Main Street to Madison Avenue.
“The attention was different for me,” Jansen concedes. “I’m not one who loves the spotlight, so it was bizarre and it was intimidating. After the closing ceremony I went straight to New York and did the talk show circuit – The David Letterman Show, all of the morning shows like The Today Show and Good Morning America. It was surreal – even just walking around New York people knew who I was. It was a huge adjustment for me to be someone recognized in that way on a national scale. It was certainly that way when I came home to Wisconsin. It was big time. I didn’t even think about going out for dinner or doing anything in public for awhile.”
Jansen’s newfound celebrity landed him on the February 28, 1994 cover of Sports Illustrated, along with good friend and fellow speed skating legend Bonnie Blair. His autobiography Full Circle: An Olympic Champion Shares His Breakthrough Story, hit bookstores later that fall. In between, Jansen was also very much in demand as an endorser and motivational speaker. Two years later, on February 14, 1996 – the eight year anniversary of Jane’s passing – A Brother’s Promise: The Dan Jansen Story premiered on national TV, as well as in such far-flung places as Germany, Spain, Finland and Hungary.
“It was a phenomena for a while, but eventually the buzzed died down, which suited me just fine because I’m a private person. People had great intentions, and I’m super appreciative that they were happy for me, but the newfound celebrity was unsettling to say the least. Even today, after all of these years, it’s still requires an adjustment on my part.” – Dan Jansen
“It was a phenomena for a while, but eventually the buzzed died down, which suited me just fine because I’m a private person,” Jansen says. “People had great intentions, and I’m super appreciative that they were happy for me, but the newfound celebrity was unsettling to say the least. Even today, after all of these years, it’s still requires an adjustment on my part. I can appreciate how real celebrities have to deal with that type of lifestyle every day, and how tough it can become on them, but for me I knew fame was fleeting. It was great to celebrate with my hometown people, and I still to this day I get nothing but good things spoken to me. I’m thankful for that, because I didn’t become famous for something negative or notorious. I’m just glad to be famous for something that makes people feel good. That’s always positive.”
Surely, after all these years, Jansen’s fame has led to many good-natured ribbings from his brothers and sisters.
“I can’t say that there’s ever been any ribbing, but occasionally the subject will come up. My brother was there with me, so there are a lot of good memories that we talk about. I’ve heard my siblings talk about it among themselves, about how great it was for them immediately afterwards – walking around Lillehammer without me and the people coming up to congratulate them. There were times when people didn’t know that they were my siblings, they just knew that they were Americans. That was really special, and to me, that really said a lot about the people of Norway and how much they knew about my story.”
A movie, and autobiography, and a place on People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list…it would be easy to get caught up in the trappings of fame, or for Dan Jansen to get drunk on his own mythology. But Jansen was no Icarus – he was raised humble and stayed humble – so there was no danger of him flying to close to the sun, his wax wings melting away, the subsequent fall chronicled on Dateline or 20/20.
“Winning the gold and the fame that came with it didn’t change me,” he says flatly. “I was still the ninth child in a large family from Wisconsin. What really changed for me were the opportunities that came my way, in terms of the people that I was able to meet, and still meet today, the friends that I’ve made, things like that. I am invited to celebrity golf tournaments, or other events that you wouldn’t ordinarily wouldn’t get invited to, so those are perks that I enjoy. That’s really the biggest way it changed my life. It’s allowed me to meet some great people. The negative part, as I’ve mentioned, is the lack of privacy. That was the biggest negative adjustment to becoming a celebrity, but celebrity is what you make of it. If you want to make a big deal of it then you will, you will find an entourage to walk around with, or whatever the case may be. But that’s not really me. It never has been, and it never will be.”
~ ~ ~
Jansen retired a few months after winning the gold medal in Lillehammer. In 1995, he won the prestigious AAU James E. Sullivan Award, presented annually to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. The list of winners is long and impressive: Bobby Jones. Dick Button. Wilma Rudolph. Mark Spitz. Carl Lewis. Tim Tebow. Jansen’s year was so big that he nudged out golfing phenom Tiger Woods to win the award.
“You know, I think it’s one of the lesser-known things about me, and even one of the lesser-known awards, so I’m glad that you’ve brought that up,” Jansen says. “For me, the Sullivan Award is one of the most special awards out there. It’s recognition as the top amateur athlete in the United States, and it covers all sports. I remember winning it – I was sitting next to Tiger Woods, he was nominated that year. Tiger was still in college and competing as an amateur golfer. It was right before he turned pro. Charlie Ward was also there, as well as several others. It’s just a great award to look back on, and again, it’s rarely pointed out. Whenever I’m introduced, the lead-in is always about the gold medal, and the Sullivan Award is rarely mentioned. But for me, winning that award was very cool. When somebody wins the Heisman Trophy, they are part of that pantheon forever. People know all about the Heisman and who the winners are, but most don’t know about the Sullivan Award winner. Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair are both Sullivan Award winners. Having three speed skaters win the award is pretty cool.”
The gold medal allowed Jansen to walk away on top. While Lillehammer is by far the biggest line item on his résumé, the two-time world champion dominated his sport in a way that often gets overlooked.
“The Olympics are huge, but the World Championships and the World Cup are as big as you can get,” Jansen says. “I won 46 World Cup races and seven overall titles. If you’re a skier and you had those numbers it would be a pretty big deal, but our sport, at least in this country, isn’t recognized as much. But that’s not really why we do what we do. We do it because we love the sport. We want to keep getting better, and trying to go faster. When you win it’s great. When you come up short you’re looking forward to the next race. I loved every minute of it, and I would do it all over again.”
Jansen also knows that speed skating doesn’t carry the same cachet as other Winter Olympic sports, such as figure skating, ice hockey and alpine skiing.
“Speed skaters go into it knowing that they may never become rich or famous. I’m not saying that we don’t dream and we don’t have these grand illusions when we’re starting out, but we understand the realities of the sport that we’ve chosen. There are plenty of famous figure skaters, people like Michelle Kwan, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano. The sport is much more high profile. Speed skaters fly under the radar, but that was fine with me. I was happy to compete, and I didn’t go into it looking for fame or celebrity. I think those things found me because of the way my story played out.”
Even after all of these years, people still remember what Jansen went through, how he persevered, and how he came out whole on the other side. What’s clear is that he didn’t need that gold medal to validate his career, at least not to the person who matters most. Yet Dan Jansen understands its significance.
“I guess the reason my story is still known has a lot to do with the tough parts that I went through. Had I won in the first Olympics, or the second Olympics, who knows? Who knows if I would still be asked to speak and share my story? Had my story been different, had the results been different, you may not have even wanted to interview me. Would I have been considered a failure if I’d slipped in that last 1000 at Lillehammer and finished my career without an Olympic medal? Fortunately, I was able to win gold and get that monkey off of my back, so to speak. Life is strange in those ways and I don’t really have the answers for why, but it’s not something that I take for granted. I’m very thankful for being remembered, so when I speak I try to convey good, positive messages about the lessons that I’ve learned. I try my best to share those things and speak from the heart. I feel like a lot of good came from my career, and I’ve tried to enjoy all of the moments along the way. So as cliché as it sounds, for me it has truly been about the journey and not the end result.”
~ ~ ~
Dan Jansen continues to love his sport. Today, he is a speed skating commentator for NBC. In 2014, he was in Sochi, Russia, to take part in his ninth Winter Olympics – four as a competitor, five as a TV analyst – and it’s clear that he still has a passion for the Games.
“I love working as a commentator for the Olympic Games,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite things to do now. It’s not as easy as people think, I will be the first to tell you that. There is a lot of research that goes into it, and a lot of getting to know and understand television and how all of that works, but I love doing it. I love staying involved in the sport and following along with who’s doing what, so I look forward to covering speed skating at the Olympics. I’ve also been working all of the World Cup and World Championship events in between Olympics, so that helps keep me on top of things. It’s a great time and a huge learning experience. Like I’ve said, it’s not quite as easy as everybody might think.”
Staying connected to his sport means that Jansen has seen the changes since he became the first skater to break the 36-second barrier in the 500.
“You really can’t compare the speed skaters of today with the athletes who competed when I skated,” Jansen says. “The single biggest reason is because of the skates. The skates are so much different today, and they’ve dramatically changed the sport. The skates in use today now have hinged blades, so that when you push off, you’re getting to the end of your push with your toe, which is a significant advantage over the technology that we used. My skates were all one piece, which meant that the heel had to come up off the ice, but the skates of today work like a cross country ski. There’s a hinge, so when you push off with the toe the blade stays on the ice. It’s a dramatic advantage. Modern skaters are getting much more push with each stride, so much so that it’s making a second-and-a-half per lap difference compared to the skates that we used. It’s really outrageous to think about.
“When I retired, my world record in the 500-meters was 35.76. And now there’s a guy named Pavel Kulizhnikov, who just broke 34 seconds for the first time – 34 flat in November, 2015, which is more than a second-and-a-half faster than my fastest time, and then 33.98 in Salt Lake City five days later. He later tested positive for having meldonium in his system, but his ban was lifted after the International Skating Union lifted when they determined the concentration of meldonium was below the threshold. Coincidentally, meldonium is the same drug that Maria Sharapova was tested positive for, and she was banned from tennis for more than a year. I believe there’s something like 60 athletes that have now tested positive for that drug.”
~ ~ ~
Time flies nearly as fast as Dan Jansen once did around the track. It seems like yesterday when Jansen skated that memorable victory lap around the track in Hamar Olympic Hall that day. Jane is a young woman now. In the blink of an eye she went from the baby in all those victory lap photos to a student at Clemson University, majoring in education, her future as bright and as filled with potential as her famous father. Jansen’s youngest daughter, Olivia, has also grown into a young woman with hopes and dreams of her own. Watching his daughters grow up, and being there for them, is Jansen’s priority now. He lives a quiet life in Mooresville, North Carolina, where he works in real estate, plays golf with his wife (well-known golf pro Karen Palacios-Jensen), and enjoys taking his boat out on Lake Norman. He’s also started working with a NASCAR team to provide its drivers with mental and physical training, offering them a competitive advantage in a sport every bit as competitive as speed skating.
“I don’t want to mention any names at this point,” he says, “but working with NASCAR drivers is a lot of fun. Hopefully it will continue to grow.”
All this, and he never forgets.
Jansen’s charity is involved in myriad of causes – helping individuals and families affected by leukemia and related cancers, supporting youth sports programs, and assisting high school seniors in the pursuit of higher education – all in memory of his sister.
“We started the foundation in 1995, the year after I won the gold medal,” Jansen says. “I just wanted to do something to give back, and to do it in Jane’s memory. We started helping the families of the victims, because when Jane was sick we had to travel back and forth as a family, and the expenses can pile up quickly. My mom and dad basically lived in Seattle for a year when Jane was sick, and it was a great financial burden on the family, so we try to help families to be able to travel, to be able to be with their siblings and their children during those difficult times. The foundation helps to pay for their travel and for their room and board.
“We recently helped a family by paying their mortgage for a couple of months. Their child was very sick and going through expensive treatments, and they had no other way to do meet their monthly mortgage obligation. It’s the little things like that, that people don’t always think about. Most people think in terms of finding a cure, and that’s where they think they should put their money, but that’s not what the focus of my foundation is all about. Were not a huge charity. A cure for cancer hasn’t been found yet, so we’re going to help the people who are still in the unfortunate position of fighting it. It’s a very rewarding and fulfilling cause, so to be able to help with those sorts of things has been great.”
It turns out Jansen was right all along. He didn’t need a gold medal to make a difference in the lives of others. Had he slipped during his last race in Lillehammer, the only difference would have been the way people chose to view his legacy. For Dan Jansen, his life would have been no less fulfilling.
“First and foremost, always do good things for people,” he says. “Make a positive difference in the lives of others. Those are the things that have true meaning. Stardom and celebrity have a short shelf life, and those things don’t really matter in the big scheme of things. If you can help someone who is going through tough times, then you’ve done something far more meaningful with your life. Those are the things that matter most.”