Dan Jansen was one of the world’s top speed skaters for the better part of a decade. But it is his tales of tragedy and heartbreak that earned attention – and finally made Olympic victory that much sweeter.
Jansen made his Olympic debut at the Sarajevo 1984 Olympic Winter Games; just 18 years old, he narrowly missed earning a medal in the 500-meter race, finishing fourth.
When Jansen returned to the Olympics at the Calgary 1988 Olympic Winter Games, he was in a new role. Instead of being one of the youngest on the team, Jansen was now one of the favorites in the 500- and 1,000-meter races. Jansen was the youngest of nine children; on the morning of the 500, his sister Jane died of leukemia. Hours later, Jansen took the ice but fell in the first turn. A few days later, Jansen also fell in the 1,000. Jansen left Calgary with the U.S. Olympic Spirit Award, but no medal.
“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.”
Four years later, Jansen was back on Olympic ice at the Albertville 1992 Olympic Winter Games, where he again took fourth in the 500.
Jansen, though, would get one more chance just two years later as the International Olympic Committee moved to stagger the Winter and Summer Games. In the Lillehammer 1994 Olympic Winter Games, Jansen slipped twice and dropped to eighth in the 500. He would have one more chance at Olympic gold in the 1,000 and Jansen took full advantage, finishing in a world-record time of 1 minutes 12.43 seconds and bringing the entire arena to its feet.
After skating a victory lap while carrying his daughter, named Jane in honor of her aunt, and the medal ceremony, Jansen received a congratulatory phone call from President Bill Clinton.
“To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so patriotic – pride,” Jansen said years later. “I was so happy, for my family, that they were going to be able to celebrate. To Jane, I looked up and have her a little salute.”