The youngest of nine kids, Dan Jansen was no stranger to tagging along, and in rural Wisconsin that usually meant to the ice. He got on his first pair of skates as a toddler and whizzed around frozen lakes and ponds. He tried other sports over the years, but always came back to skating where he was unmatched in speed for his age. In 1984 at only 18 years old, Jansen went to his first Olympics in Sarajevo and fondly remembers the care-free experience. Because he was relatively unknown, there was no pressure to reach the podium and he could fully enjoy the opening and closing ceremonies, the camaraderie between athletes, and the magic of the games. His goal was to be in the top ten fastest times in the 500 meter event and he ended up coming in fourth, just barely missing bronze. Dan returned home elated and proud of his finish at his first Olympics, but, for the first time, was faced with public perception and media scrutiny. For while his expectations were exceeded, others appeared disappointed that he didn’t medal at the games.
Knowing the podium was within reach, Dan poured even more into his training. He won the World Championship in 1988 and was favored to win in the 500m that winter at the Olympics games in Calgary. “Going in favored to win is one of the hardest things an athlete can do,” recalls Jansen. The awe of the games was long gone, as he was down to business, focused on his race, eyes on gold. Despite the fact that he was skating incredibly that week, there was something weighing heavy on his mind. Back home his older sister, Jane, had been battling leukemia for over a year. After receiving rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, she was in stable condition when Dan bid her goodbye before leaving for Calgary. But his dad, who had been with him at the games, was called back home before Dan’s race to be with her as she took a turn for the worse. On the morning of the race, February 14, Dan got a call at 6:00 am that she had passed away.
Racked by the shock of her dead, Dan barely managed to eat breakfast before returning to his room and collapsing into tears. Four hours before the start he summoned the strength to put on his uniform and lace up his skates. There was much debate over whether or not he should even compete, but knowing that Jane was his biggest fan, the family assured him that it’s what she would have wanted. Stepping on to the ice, his legs felt like lead, exhausted by the emotions of the day. He did his best to loosen up, but stepped up to the starting line feeling disoriented–and crashed just 100 meters into the 500 meter race.
Three days later, once the initial shock had worn off, Dan found himself on the ice again preparing for the 1000 meter race. He considered leaving between the two events, but his family and coach encouraged him to finish his races before returning. As he stepped on to the ice, he felt more physically prepared, but his heart was still with his family. Again, he fell on a turn and recalls, “I just wanted to be home.” He got off the ice, packed his bag, and was home that evening without any goodbyes, not caring in the least the outcome.
When he was twelve his dad once told him, “there’s more to life than skating in little circles,” and that never felt more true. Dan took time to be with his family after his sister’s death and went back to skating because, “I just didn’t know what else to do.” He buried himself in training and competing and even won a World Cup that year, but admitted that he skated to avoid facing the pain. Wanting to distance himself from his reality, he enrolled in the University of Calgary and intended to train there as well. When he arrived the following fall and stepped on to the same track, all of the trauma of race day came flooding back. Even though it was a year later, Dan finally had to wrestle with his grief.
Dan arrived at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville on the heels of a new World Record he set while dominating the international circuit across Europe. He refers to the 92 Games as the most “puzzling” of his Olympics. Perhaps it was overconfidence or over-resting, but he lost his typical spark and missed the podium in both events. Befuddled and frustrated, Dan left the games and again faced media scrutiny for his performance. Reporters even referred to him as “The Big Choke” of the games as, once again, he didn’t race to his potential.
On his way to the 1996 Olympics in Lillehamer, Dan got married and welcome his daughter, Jane, named after his sister. The five fastest times ever skated in the 500 meters all belonged to him, so truly, this was a race against himself. He fully expected the journey to come to a happy ending, but pushed himself too hard and caught the edge of his skate on a turn causing a wobble that would, again, cost him a medal. Despite his initial frustration, Jansen was in a different position mentally. “I thought to myself, ‘it was one place that you slipped, it doesn’t mean you are not skating well.’”, he said. He knew that public perception would be relentless about his loss, but he could still walk away proud of his career even without an Olympic medal. He walked into the 1000 meter race, the final professional race of his life, knowing that if he did his best, he could retire happy. He had seized the power to define success for himself. When he crossed the finish line and saw the World Record time, he knew that this race would finally deliver that long awaited medal. Even his rivals were thrilled for him, one pulling him aside to say, “It’s about time.” As he stood at the top of the podium soaking in the National Anthem, he recalled all of the people who helped him along the way to this moment – the trainers, coaches, friends, and family–especially his sister Jane.
Leaving Lillehamer, “it was like a weight off of my shoulders,” he says. He may have retired, but he did not slow down. The Dan Jansen Foundation was soon established to help support non-medical costs for families with loved ones battling cancer. Everything from hospital stays, to food, to transportation – Dan knew first hand what a toll cancer takes on an entire family. He continues to advocate and fundraise for research for leukemia as well as speak around the world. “If you use your sport to make you a better person, then you’ve won,” he says. Through the ups and downs, victories and pitfalls, Dan’s perseverance shaped his character and has become his legacy.
Find out more about the Dan Jansen Foundation and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.