- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2005

“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”

For speedskater Dan Jansen, it was the worst of days.

On the morning of Feb. 14, 1988, he spoke to his older sister, Jane Beres, who was in the final stages of leukemia at the family home in West Allis, Wis. A few hours later, his phone rang in Calgary, Alberta, and he learned of her death.

Dan and Jane had been close since childhood, and now grief overtook him. The Winter Olympics and his scheduled 500-meter race seemed unimportant. But Jansen competed anyway because, he said later, “that’s what Jane would have wanted.”

His mother, Gerry, also urged him to skate. But after doing so she felt a chill and thought, “Oh, my son, what have I asked you to do?”

By race time, viewers around the globe knew of Jansen’s loss and were rooting for him — perhaps with tears in their eyes as well as sympathy in their hearts on Valentine’s Day.

Jansen was a heavy favorite to win the gold medal, but doubt descended as he awaited the starting signal.

“When I got out on the track, nothing felt the same,” he recalled. “My skates were slipping around, 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, nothing was going to make me lose. On that day, nothing was going to make me win.”

His fears proved prophetic. First Jansen committed a rare false start. Less than 10 seconds after the restart, he caught a blade in the ice on the first turn and fell, spinning across the ice toward another skater and elimination.

Stunned, he sat on the ice for what seemed an eternity. Finally arising, he stood bent over with head in hands — a picture of deepest despair as millions of viewers shared his pain.

This was not the last time Jansen would flop, literally or figuratively, in the Olympics. Four days later, while he was leading the 600 meters and on a pace to set a world record, he suddenly found himself flat on the ice and wondering what had happened. Again.

And the agony of defeat continued. Four years later, Jansen was one of the top entrants in the 500- and 1,000-meter events at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France. This time there were no falls, just highly disappointing finishes: fourth at 500, a tie for 26th at 1,000.

Such a series of failures would dismay and discourage most athletes. But if you look up the word “perseverance” in the dictionary, you might find Dan Jansen’s name. To draw one comparison, surely he was the Richard Nixon of speedskating.

“He began to be portrayed as kind of a heartbreak kid because he might have been the greatest speedskater never to win a gold medal, and that would have meant he was one of the biggest chokers of all time,” sports psychologist Jim Loehr said on ESPN Classic’s “Sports Century.”

Dan Jansen bogged down in sports history as a choker? No way. And so he skated on.

In December 1993, at a World Cup event, Jansen became the first man to break the 36-second barrier for 500 meters. Six weeks later, he reduced the mark with a 35.76 at the World Sprint Championships. By the opening ceremony at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, he had bettered 36 seconds four times; no one else had done it once.

Jansen knew this was his last chance in the Olympics, and the 500-meter final was Feb. 14 — exactly six years after Jane’s death and perhaps a sign the gods wanted Jansen to get his gold medal at last. He was skating well and in contention when his left skate slipped and he touched the ice with his hand, causing him to finish eighth.

Cruel, cruel fate.

Four days later, before the 1,000-meter final, Jansen understandably had low expectations. “Just skate,” he told himself. “It’ll be over soon.”

Maybe that same fate likes to keep athletes humble. This time, after a heart-stopping minor slip from which he quickly recovered, Jansen broke the world record by 0.11 seconds while winning in 1:12.43.

At last, he was pure gold.

“I knew I skated a solid race,” he said afterward. “But it wasn’t until the crowd began cheering and the board read ‘world record’ that I realized I had finally skated to my potential. … It’s strange, that one minute and 12 seconds. It didn’t change who I am, but life is different somehow.”

And so 1994 became a year of vindication for Jansen. He won the Sullivan and Thorpe awards as the nation’s top amateur athlete. And in August, at age 29, he retired from competition to become a broadcaster and motivational speaker. He also further honored his sister by establishing the Dan Jansen Foundation, which supports leukemia research, educational programs and youth sports.

You see, Jansen is more than a man who never gives up. He also is a man who never forgets that others can suffer, too.

Introduced to speedskating as a small child by Jane, Jansen quickly became a star — and just as quickly learned to deal with disappointment. One of the favorites in the National Pack Speedskating Championships at age 11, he instead finished as an also-ran and cried for much of the 300-mile trip home.

“When we got there, my dad, Harry, took me aside and said, ‘Dan, there’s more to life than skating around in circles.’ ” Jansen recalled. “I didn’t understand at the time what he meant, but I later realized how important it is to keep things in perspective.”

Yet it’s hard to keep things in perspective when you’re a world-class athlete. After snatching various junior championships, Jansen made the U.S. Olympic team in 1984, when he was 18. He finished fourth in the 500 meters, just 0.16 seconds shy of a bronze medal. Four more years of triumphs and trophies led him to Calgary and poignancy in the 1988 Games.

But in the final reckoning, Jansen truly proved the master of his fate on that golden day in Lillehammer. As “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played and the American flag hoisted, he saluted toward the sky and said, “This is for you, Jane — I love you.” Then he took a victory lap with his 8-month-old daughter in his arms.

Of course, the little girl also was named Jane.

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