Jansen persevered despite Olympic disappointments

Updated: March 23, 2005, 4:44 PM ET
By Lisette Hilton | Special to ESPN.com

"[Dan Jansen] began to be portrayed as kind of a heartbreak kid because this may be the greatest speed skater that ever put on skates never to have won an Olympic medal. And that would have meant that he was one of the biggest chokers of all time," says sports psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

A talented and powerful speed skater, Dan Jansen won world sprint championships, topped World Cup standings and set world records. Yet the challenges that haunted the four-time Olympian were what made the headlines and broke the hearts of his family, fans and even competitors.

Dan Jansen
Dan Jansen of the USA wins his first gold medal at the 1994 Olympics in the 1000 meter speed skating competition with a new world record time of 1:12.43.
From the death of his sister on the day of an Olympic race to illness and poor performances when it counted most, it seemed as if Jansen was destined never to win gold at the Games. But then in 1994, competing in his last Olympics, the skating gods finally smiled on Jansen and watched as he won the 1,000-meter race at Lillehammer, Norway.

Jansen was born on June 17, 1965 in West Allis, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee. He was the youngest of nine children born to Harry Jansen, a police officer, and Gerry Jansen, a nurse.

The family's recreational activities centered around speed skating. Jansen's parents took even the youngest children to skating competitions because Harry says they couldn't afford to pay for babysitters.

In charge of Dan's introduction to skating was his sister Jane. Dan took to speed skating quickly and within four years was winning national meets in his age group.

In 1982, as a 16-year-old high school sophomore, he set a junior world record in the 500 in his first international competition.

Two years later, he made the U.S. Olympic team. Competing in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, he placed 16th in the 1,000-meter race and a surprising fourth in the 500, only a sixth of a second from finishing third. "I was 18 and I just missed a bronze medal," Jansen said. "I was so excited. Then I came home and the reporters were saying, 'That's too bad [about finishing fourth]. That's when I started to feel there's too much emphasis on medals."

What Jansen didn't know was that tragedy and disappointment would plague his Olympic career for years to come.

Jansen's skating continued to improve and in 1985 he finished third in the overall standings at the world sprint championships. The next year, he topped the World Cup rankings for the 500 and 1,000 meters.

His first brush with career challenges came in 1987, when mononucleosis zapped his strength and stamina. He also learned of his sister Jane's leukemia. He had regained his physical strength but continued his mental struggle with Jane's illness. That struggle came to a head at the 1988 Olympics.

Jansen was among the favorites for the 500 meters in Calgary. Just a week earlier, he had won the World Sprint Championship in his hometown. Early on the morning of February 14, the day of the 500 Olympic race, he received a phone call telling him that his 27-year-old sister was dying. The phone was put by Jane's ear and Jansen told her, "I love you."

Six hours later, he learned Jane had died.

Jansen sought the advice of his mother, Gerry, about whether he should compete. She urged her son to race.

"When I got out to the track, nothing felt the same," Jansen said. "My skates were slipping around and I couldn't control them, and when that happens it's hard to think you're going to have a good race. The day before, there was nothing that was going to make me lose. On that day, there was nothing that was going to make me win."

He was right. First, he committed a rare false start. Then he slipped and fell on the first turn, just as he had at the World Cup meet on the same track two months earlier.

On February 18, Jansen competed in the 1,000. On pace at 600 meters to win the gold and set a world record, he fell again and didn't finish.

He remained a top competitor during the next three years, finishing second in the World Cup standings in the 500 and 1,000 in 1991.

U.S. skating coach Peter Mueller predicted Jansen would take the gold at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. Mueller, a gold medalist in the 1,000 meters at the 1976 Games, worked the team hard to the point that they sometimes took showers sitting down.

Dan Jansen
Dan Jansen speeds around the track in the Mens 500-meter Speed Skating Final during the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.
In December 1991, Jansen skated the fastest 500 meters of the year, 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 Germany's Uwe-Jens Mey, Jansen's top rival for the title of world's best sprinter.

Jansen, a favorite in both the 500 and 1,000 meters at the Olympics, felt fine in the warm-ups at Albertville. "I was having fun out there," he said. "I wasn't nervous."

But when it came time to sprint for the gold, Jansen faltered again. This time there was no tumbling on the ice but disappointing finishes. In the 500, he came in fourth in 37.46, more than a second off his world-record performance and .32 seconds behind the victorious Mey.

Three days later, in the 1,000 meters, Jansen fared even worse. Fading badly on the final lap, he finished in a tie for 26th.

Some say it was Jansen's nerves that produced his poor performances. Others were more forgiving and cited the conditions of rain and soft ice, which they say slowed the powerful 6-foot, 190-pound Jansen.

Despite his Olympic disappointments, Jansen persevered. He became the first speed skater to break the 36-second barrier for the 500 meters, winning a World Cup race in Norway in 35.92 seconds on Dec. 5, 1993. Then on Jan. 30, 1994, only two weeks before the Olympics, he broke his own record with a 35.76 at the World Sprint Championships. By the opening of the Olympics, Jansen had beaten the 36-second barrier four times; no one else had done it once.

The 500 Olympic race in Lillehammer took place exactly six years to the day that Jane had died. Jansen was off his world record pace but skating well when, on the final turn, his left skate slipped and he was forced to touch the ice with his hand. That slight slip was enough to cause him to finish eighth.

Jansen seemed more concerned with his family and fans than himself. "I'm supposed to win," he said. "Something goes wrong and they can't celebrate."

Four days later, before the 1,000-meter race, Jansen had low expectations. "Just skate," he thought. "It'll be over soon."

Skating in the fourth pair, Jansen was on a record-setting pace after 600 meters. He experienced a heart-stopping slip but quickly regained his balance, barely touching the ice. He finished in 1:12.43, beating the world record by .11 seconds. None of the other skaters could hit the mark.

He waved to the sky in memory of his sister and took the victory lap in Lillehammer with eight-month-old daughter Jane in his arms. Jansen didn't know what to think when he realized he had won the gold. "I was shaking," he said. "I guess my first thought was 'Finally, it's happened for me.'"

Turns out, 1994 was a year of celebration after all.

The gold medal was the key to Jansen winning the 1994 Sullivan Award as the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States.

In August 1994, he announced his retirement from competition and began a career as a broadcaster for CBS Sports, covering the Olympics and other speed-skating events. Also in 1994 he honored his sister by establishing the Dan Jansen Foundation, with donations being used for leukemia research, youth sports and educational programs.

When not working on his golf game, Jansen is a motivational speaker who uses his story to inspire others. Divorced from his first wife, Jansen married Karen Palacios, a golf pro, in 2000 and they live in Charlotte, N.C., near his two daughters.

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