American speed skater Dan Jansen overcame the shock of losing his sister during Calgary 1988 to win Olympic gold in his final race six years later. With his daughter Olivia now embarking on her own Olympic journey, having worked in broadcasting at PyeongChang 2018, Dan looks back on the importance of family in his stellar career
My only goal in my first Games [in 1984] was to make the team. I didn’t think about a medal – I was only 18. Our Olympic trials were the high-stress part, and then the Games were just fun for me.
Copyright The Olympic Channel Services S.L. All rights reserved.
My second Games [in 1988] is when people started to hear the name “Dan Jansen”, and maybe not for the reasons that they should have. My sister Jane was diagnosed with leukaemia one year before the 1988 Games. She had treatment and a bone marrow transplant, which was successful for a short time, but she relapsed and then passed away on the morning of the 500m. I was favourite for a gold medal, but I fell that night and then I fell again four days later in the 1,000m.
You have to be very singularly focused coming into the Games, and outside distractions are generally not good. But for me, this wasn’t a distraction – my sister’s life was much more important. It became difficult for me, and it was hugely important to have the support of family and friends.
I’m the youngest of nine children, so I have many brothers and sisters. Every one of them was supportive, and my Mum and Dad were amazing. That [support] helps you to get through the times when times don’t go well.
The journey to gold
I went on to my third Olympic Games in Albertville . I was favourite for gold again, but finished fourth. At my fourth Olympic Games in Lillehammer [in 1994], I was very heavily favoured in the 500m, but I slipped at the last turn and didn’t win a medal.
I had one last race – the 1,000m, which for me was a challenge through the years. I was capable but inconsistent. But I went out, set a world record and finally won a gold medal.
The podium is one of the best memories of my life. Everything comes back: all the training, all the people that have helped you – your family, your friends and your country. It’s a very powerful moment. I got to give a little salute to my sister, and that made it even more special.
Lessons for my daughters
Obviously, [winning gold] was a big moment in my life, but I know now that the journey was the most important thing. The things I learned along the way, [to] keep learning and keep moving forward – those are the lessons I’ve tried to take with me through the years and teach my daughters.
It’s so much fun to watch Olivia. She wasn’t born when I skated, but it’s been fun to watch her understand the Olympic world. It’s amazingly special.
I’m proud of Olivia, I’m proud of Jane – both my daughters, every day. I know that their aunt Jane would be beaming with pride as she watches them grow into young ladies.