Speed Skater Jansen Overcame Olympic Heartbreak

By Robert Niedzwiecki, The Winchester Star | May 07, 2018, 5:41 p.m. (ET)

WINCHESTER — On Feb. 14, 1988, Dan Jansen received a phone call in which he heard heartbreaking news — his 27-year-old sister Jane had passed away after a one-year battle with leukemia.

Losing someone so young, someone you’re so close to, would be enough to make anyone want to shut themselves off from the rest of the world for days, if not weeks.

But Jansen, then 22, had more on his mind than just his sister when he woke up that day. He was about to showcase himself to the entire world at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, as the gold medal favorite for the 500-meter speed skating race.

The decision to go ahead and skate that day wasn’t an easy one. But deep down, he knew it was the right one to make after his first phone conversation of the day with his mother, one that took place before he received the news of Jane’s passing.

“Literally, as soon as I was on the phone with my mom that morning, and she said that she wouldn’t make it through the day, that was our first question: ‘Should I skate?” said Jansen on Saturday morning while sitting at a table on the lower level of the Moose Lodge before the start of Saturday’s Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival Partlow Insurance Sports Breakfast. “We just decided, ‘What would Jane want me to do?’

“We knew that if I pulled out then, she would have felt awful. She would have felt, ‘This is your dream, and you’re not doing it because of me.’ She was very sensitive. She knew what I would have wanted, so I went out and gave it a shot.”

Jansen didn’t capture the gold medal he was favored to win that day because of a slip and crash into the wall. But he never stopped giving everything he had until he finally claimed that elusive gold, doing so in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, in the 1,000 meters in a world-record time of 1:12.43.

Jansen is the youngest of nine children, and Jane was the youngest of Jansen’s five sisters.

“As I grew up, it was Jane, and my brother Mike, and myself doing everything together, because the others were a bit older and already off doing their own thing,” Jansen said. “So that relationship with her just grew and grew. She was a big influence on me and my skating. She was always encouraging, and she was kind of the one that made me believe I could be good someday.”

Jansen turned out to be one of the best of all time. Over his career, Jansen won 46 World Cup races (second all-time) and seven overall World Cups. He also won the World Sprint Championships in 1998 and 1994.

Still, none of that could compare to performing his best at the Olympics after so many difficult performances.

Jansen also slipped in the 1,000 meters at the 1988 Olympics. He took fourth in the 1992 Olympics in the 500. In 1994, he had the five fastest times in the world in the 500, but he slipped in the last turn and took eighth.

“I was so relieved when I crossed the line and saw my time,” Jansen said. “There were 30 guys to skate yet, so I didn’t know I had won, but I was pretty sure it was going to hold up, at least for a medal.

“More so, I was relieved that I had skated to my potential at the Olympics. That became my goal near the end [of my career]. My goal ceased being winning a gold medal. That, for whatever reason, wasn’t working for me. I knew I was the best. I just decided to change my goal and go out skate the best that I could skate, let it happen, and [I got the gold].”

Also in 1994, the Dan Jansen Foundation was established, which solicits financial support and distributes funds to charities with an emphasis on aiding individuals and families affected by cancer.

“It’s been one of the more rewarding things I’ve done in my life,” Jansen said. “When Jane was sick, the bone marrow transplant [center] was in Seattle, and we’re from Wisconsin. She had lived there for a year, my mom and dad lived there. We were traveling back and forth. Nine kids, and a police officer and a nurse for parents, we didn’t have money, so some of that took a financial toll as well.

“Right now, we help families in situations where their sons or daughters are being treated. We take care of non-medical expenses like travel, room and board. Sometimes they might not be able to afford their electricity bill that month, and they’re going to lose their electricity. We pay for things that people don’t realize that families go through.”

Jansen is heavily involved in helping athletes as well. For example, he helped train speed skater Mitch Whitmore for the Olympics this year (Whitmore finished 15th in the 500).

Jansen, who lives in Mooresville, N.C., also helps NASCAR drivers, which he started doing in the last couple of years after he gave a motivational speech to one of the NASCAR teams. Last year he started working with three young drivers in the Ford Performance development program.

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