Dan Jansen Helps Fellow Olympians Overcome Hard Times

By Doug Williams | Feb. 20, 2014, 10:49 a.m. (ET)
Team Citi athlete Dan Jansen speaks at the Citi Every Step of the Way launch on Oct. 24, 2013 in New York City. 

Dan Jansen’s emotional victory lap at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer ranks as one of the most memorable moments in U.S. winter Olympic history.

After failing to win a medal at three previous Winter Games, Jansen — perhaps the finest male long track speedskater of his era — won gold in his final event of the Lillehammer Games, the 1,000-meter.

In triumph, and holding his baby daughter in one arm and flowers in the other, Jansen skated around the track, waving to the crowd.

After waiting so long and enduring so much frustration and failure, he could hardly believe he’d finally won a gold medal and set a world record in the process. In seven previous Olympic races, he had fallen short. The 1,000-meter was his last chance.

“I was shaking,” he told reporters after realizing he’d won that night in Norway. “I guess my first thought was, ‘Finally, it’s happened for me.’”

Jansen took a bow that night as an Olympic athlete, but he’s never stepped away from his sport or the Olympic Movement. He’s working for NBC at the Sochi Games in Russia, the fifth Olympic Games he’s done television commentary about speedskating.

In addition, Jansen, 48, is involved in a project called Olympians for Olympians Relief Fund that helps athletes experiencing hard times — those who may be coping with injuries, illness or financial difficulties.

“This is a fund that was started by Olympians, and so that also makes it special, and if we can help out those of us — because we are a family who have come across tough times — it’s a good feeling,” he said.

Now the Olympians for Olympians Relief Fund is getting a boost through Citi’s Every Step of the Way program. The Citi program, launched in 2012, benefits U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes and hopefuls through fundraising and Citi’s own donation of $500,000. The program is led by nine athlete ambassadors (including Jansen) who are involved in a variety of initiatives to help the next generation of U.S. athletes.

Fans can go to the Every Step of the Way website and click on Jansen’s name to direct funding toward the Olympians for Olympians Relief Fund. Other Olympians and Paralympians involved, who are championing other programs, are Julie Chu, Billy Demong, Erin Hamlin, Ted Ligety, Evan Lysacek, Alana Nichols, Rico Roman and Picabo Street.

To Jansen, being able to help support fellow Olympians in times of need is rewarding.

“Our athletes, more than any athletes in the world, need financial support or we simply cannot send them,” he said, referring to the fact that Team USA receives no government funding. “They can’t go, they can’t train and they can’t be at their peak.”

When he was a young athlete, Jansen was part of a big, loving family of nine children growing up in Wisconsin. All the children were introduced to speedskating by their parents, and it became a big part of their lives. By the time he was 16, Jansen had set a world record in the 500-meter in his first international competition. Two years later he made the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team for Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

Over his long career he would win nine U.S. championships, become a seven-time overall world cup champion and set eight world records. Eventually, he was elected to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004.

But Jansen first achieved widespread fame not for his success, but his failure during the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. On the day of his first race in those Games, the 500-meter, he learned his older sister, Jane, had died of leukemia. It had been Jane who was Dan’s biggest cheerleader and supporter.

Following the advice of his mother, Jansen decided to race anyway. But Jansen — a favorite in the event — fell on the first turn. Four days later in the 1,000, he fell again.

Four years later in Albertville, France, he was 0-for-2. Then at Lillehammer, he slipped in the 500-meter, his best event, and finished eighth. The 1,000-meter would be his last chance.

After winning, he picked up his 8-month-old girl and took his victory lap.

“I got to carry my little daughter Jane, who I named after my sister, so it kind of came full circle on that one special day,” said Jansen.

Added Jansen: “I felt everything in one — relief, joy. It was the race I wasn’t supposed to win, but I knew I had it inside me.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.