Although he was regarded as one of the finest speed skaters of his generation, Dan Jansen had to wait until his fourth Olympic Winter Games, Lillehammer 1994, to win a gold medal. In doing so, he put memories of previous Olympic failures and a traumatic personal experience at Calgary 1988 behind him.
Born in West Allis (Wisconsin) on 17 June 1965 and one of nine children, Dan Jansen was introduced to speed skating by his sister Jane. Five years his senior, she was one of the finest young skaters of her generation, having set a junior world record in the 500m.
Jansen was 19 when he made his Olympic Winter Games debut at Sarajevo 1984, where he finished fourth in the 500m and 16th in the 1,000m.
When the American arrived in Calgary four years later, he did so as world sprint champion and the previous season’s World Cup 500m and 1,000m champion. However, as he prepared to compete in the shorter of the two events, he received news that his sister Jane was dying of leukaemia.
Jansen spoke to her on the telephone, telling her that he was going to win the gold for her. Tragically, she died just a few hours before he took to the ice.
Though he was among the favourites, Jansen saw his hopes of gold vanish when he fell on the first corner of his heat. Determined to atone in the 1,000m, he made a lightning start and was in the lead with just a lap to go. Then, for the second time in a few days, disaster struck as he fell to the ice once more.
The hoodoo continues
In the years that followed, Jansen maintained his excellent form on the international circuit before returning to the Olympic stage for another stab at gold in Albertville in 1992. It was still not to be, however. After missing out on a podium place in the 500m by 0.20 seconds, he could finish no higher than 26th in the 1,000m.
Away from the Winter Games, there was no shortage of success. In the lead-up to Lillehammer 1994 he took his tally of World Cup wins to 46 – out of 103 top-three finishes – and added another world title in Calgary.
Jansen’s wife Robin and his nine-month-old daughter Jane were in the stands at the Hamar Olympic Hall when he began his fourth attempt to win the Olympic 500m gold in Norway. It would end in failure yet again, as a small error cost him valuable time and he could only finish eighth.
“It was good to have Jane there because she brought us all back to reality whenever we started feeling real sorry for ourselves,” said Robin after her husband’s first race. “She would make us all think: ‘Well, this is what it’s all about’.”
The long wait ends
A few days later, Jansen brought the curtain down on his Olympic career in the 1,000m, his eighth and final chance to make it onto the podium. As he prepared to take to the ice one last time, the American feared his dream of Olympic gold was going to remain unfulfilled: “Something was off. My skates; they weren’t gripping the ice,” he recalled. “I didn’t feel solid and my legs didn’t feel normal. So I’m just thinking: ‘In a minute and a half, you’re done and your Olympics will be over.’ I was sort of prepared that it just wasn’t going to happen.”
Setting off at a fast pace, he was in second place after 200m and in the lead at 600m. There was drama on the following lap, however, as he lost his footing for a split second.
As she looked on from the stands, his wife held her head in her hands, fearing the worst. She need not have done. Jansen crossed the line in a world-record time of 1:12.43, ahead of Igor Zhelezovsky of Belarus and Russia’s Sergey Klevchenya. As his achievement sank in, he raised his arms aloft more in relief than elation.
He later recalled how he had been inspired to victory by his sister. “I wanted to say something to Jane. Right as the race ended I looked up and saluted her. I remember that I actually told Jane I was going to win it for her,” he reflected.
“It was more than a race, more than a victory. I’d had enough of people feeling sorry for me. This was better. Now they could actually be happy for me.”