By Doug Williams
Red Line Editorial
When Dan Jansen was 14 in 1980, he sat transfixed in front of his TV in Wisconsin, watching Eric Heiden race to five gold medals at the Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid.
Though Jansen already was a terrific age-group speedskater, the images of Heiden beating all comers and having gold medals draped around his neck flipped a switch in his mind.
“I guess for the first time in my life, even though I’d been skating since I was 4, it brought home the realization that one day maybe I could do that as well,” Jansen said. “Maybe I could go to the Olympics.”
Of course, he did, competing in four Winter Games and winning a gold medal in 1994.
Later, he and Heiden became friends, but Jansen still considers Heiden the best ever. He had followed Heiden for a long time, watching him train at the same facility and compete in events before the Lake Placid Games. When those Winter Games began, Jansen wanted to watch every moment.
When asked what he remembers about watching Heiden at Lake Placid, he says “Everything.”
“I was very tuned into the Games,” Jansen said. “I certainly didn’t know he was going to win five gold medals, but I knew it was a possibility. It’s not like I just happened across this (Winter Games) on television. I couldn’t wait for the Games.”
After those Winter Games, Jansen soon gave up other sports and put all his efforts into speedskating.
Jansen, as it turns out, isn’t alone among U.S. Olympic speedskating stars. Other Olympians recall — also at the impressionable age of 14 — watching Americans skate to Olympic medals. Many say it was those moments spent in front of the TV, cheering for U.S. stars, that helped inspire them to get to the Games.
Among those future Olympians who have said they were inspired at that age are such long- and short-track skaters as Joey Cheek, Katherine Reutter, Eddy Alvarez, Brittany Bowe and Chris Creveling.
“He looked so cool”
Cheek — born just a few months before Heiden’s heroics — remembers sitting in front of his TV in North Carolina at age 14 to watch Jansen win the 1,000-meter race in 1994 in Lillehammer.
Cheek, an excellent inline skater at the time, saw Jansen’s performance and immediately wanted to switch to skating on ice.
“I just remember he looked so cool,” he said. “Seeing him out there and so strong. He had these giant legs and he was cruising around the ice … and at the end of every push you’d see this spray of ice. It was like some sort of ninja warrior or something.
“I remember laying there and looking at my mom and saying, ‘Mom, mom. I want to do that!’”
Cheek recalls watching the tape of Jansen’s 1,000-meter victory over and over again. He’d get up early before school and do extra training with the tape playing as inspiration.
Cheek realized his dreams, winning a bronze medal in the 1,000 meters at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games and then gold (500 meters) and silver (1,000) medals four years later in Torino.
He also recalls meeting Jansen shortly after those 1994 Games, when Jansen came to North Carolina to speak. Cheek’s mother took him to the hotel where Jansen was to speak, and they hung out in the lobby, waiting for Jansen to come through.
Cheek said he was playing with a yo-yo to kill time when Jansen came by, struck up a conversation with him and played with the yo-yo for a while, too.
“He was super cool,” says Cheek, adding: “I think I told him at one point, ‘Hi I’m Joey, I’m going to be a speedskater like you,’ or something like that. And I think he said, ‘Yeah, sure, sounds great.’”
Five or six years later, when Cheek was on the U.S. national team, he met Jansen again, when Jansen skated and talked with the team. Cheek reminded him of the yo-yo meeting — and Jansen remembered.
“That was sort of the coolest, circular sort of serendipitous experience,” Cheek said.
Says Jansen: “We became friends, and I got to watch Joey’s career and it was just fun to see him come along quickly.”
“So much fun”
Reutter was just months from her 14th birthday when she watched short-track speedskater Apolo Ohno race to gold and silver medals at the Salt Lake City Winter Games.
At the time, she was an inline skater who had started out on ice. But after watching Ohno — she says she and her dad “lost their minds” as they watched him recover from a late crash to fight his way across the finish line at the end of the 1,000 meters to claim silver — she knew she had to return to the ice.
“That looks like so much fun,” she remembers thinking. “I want to go back to that.”
It was perfect timing, because the inline club she skated with at the time was dissolving. She transitioned back into short-track speedskating, and eight years later at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games she won a silver medal in the 1,000 meters and a bronze as a member of the 3,000-meter relay team.
Reutter had long drawn inspiration from Olympic skaters before her, not just Ohno.
As a girl, she had met six-time Olympic medalist Bonnie Blair. And she recalls that when she was only 8-10 years old and stuck at home with the chicken pox, her father played her tapes of Blair competing at the 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1994 Winter Games, plus checked out books from the library for her on Blair and Jansen.
“I had been exposed and inspired by these athletes at a very young age,” she said.
Now Reutter is a coach, working mostly with teens in Milwaukee, and has found some of her athletes watched her compete the way she watched Ohno.
Says Reutter: “I have had a lot of skaters, especially girls, come up to me and say, ‘You were my hero four years ago and I can’t believe you actually know my name.’ ”
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 usspeedskating.org since 2015 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.