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Speedy Recovery : Jansen Has Climbed Back From Tragedy in ’88 Olympics to Become Gold-Medal Possibility

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As he faced the media Wednesday at the Wisconsin Olympic Ice Rink, Dan Jansen was not sure which gave him the greater sense of satisfaction--his track-record time last weekend in the first of four 500-meter races that will determine the U.S. team for the Winter Olympics in February at Albertville, France, or the fact that reporters were talking to him about it.

Until then, it seemed to him as if reporters, at least those in the United States who do not regularly follow speedskating, recognized him only because of the tragic circumstances that engulfed him during the 1988 Winter Olympics.

Only a few hours before his scheduled competition at Calgary, in the 500 meters, a race in which he was among the medal favorites, he learned that his sister, Jane, had died in a Wisconsin hospital after a long fight with leukemia.

Jansen chose to skate that afternoon but, unable to maintain his concentration, fell. He went home to Wisconsin for the funeral, returned four days later to Calgary for the 1,000 meters and, while on a world-record pace, inexplicably fell again.

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In almost 100 races since, Jansen has fallen only once.

During that time, he has established himself as the uncontested champion of U.S. sprinters and one of the four best in the world. Even before this season, he would have been considered a gold-medal hopeful in the 500 meters at Albertville. But after his results in the first four World Cup races, followed by his performance here on the first weekend of the U.S. Olympic trials, he may start 1992 as the gold-medal favorite.

That will not inspire him to pose for a magazine cover with a gold medal around his neck before he has earned it, as Eric Heiden did in 1980, because Jansen, in order to win, must overcome Germany’s Uwe-Jens Mey.

A four-time World Cup champion and the 1988 gold medalist at 500 meters, Mey does not appear to have been adversely affected by the collapse of the unparalleled sports system that supported him as a former East German. In four head-to-head meetings with Jansen this season, Mey has two victories, one tie and one second-place finish.

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But Mey, like everyone else in the sport, had to have taken notice when Jansen skated his second-fastest time and the third-fastest ever a week ago today, when he finished the 500 meters in 36.59 seconds.

“That was a real special race,” said Jansen’s coach, former U.S. Olympian Peter Mueller. “But Dan, at this point in his career, can skate a special race every time he goes to the line. He’s just that good.”

As for the possibility that Jansen will break Mey’s world record of 36.45 either today or Saturday in the final two 500-meter races of the Olympic trials, Mueller said: “If he has good weather, there’s no saying what can happen. He is good enough that he can skate a world record.”

Even Jansen, a quiet, self-effacing Midwesterner who does not seem easily impressed by his accomplishments, was impressed.

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“It was the best race I’ve ever skated,” he said. “It wasn’t the fastest. But considering where we are, this early in the season, it was the best race of my life.”

He skated that night in weather that the skaters considered perfect. Considering the Arctic-like conditions 24 hours later, his time of 37.05 might have been the second-best race of his life.

With winds gusting at 45 m.p.h. and temperatures in the teens, the windchill factor at the Olympic Ice Rink was estimated at 45 degrees below zero. In such foul weather, his relatively large frame for a speed skater--6 feet and 190 pounds--serves him well and could be an advantage for him on the windblown track at Albertville.

Jansen, 26, is scheduled to skate in three World Cup races next month at Davos, Switzerland. Then, he said, he will be able to focus entirely on the Olympics.

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To that end, he feels compelled to limit the media’s access to him. Although his wife of the last year and a half and a sports psychologist in Florida have helped him deal with the loss of his sister and his subsequent disappointments at Calgary, it is a chapter in his life the media will not allow him to close.

As a result, he has dreaded the months leading to the Olympics.

“He had a lot of heartache, and I wish it wouldn’t come up again,” Bonnie Blair, a U.S. speedskating gold medalist and close friend of Jansen, said earlier this year. “But it will.”

In an effort to manage what his former coach, John Teaford, calls “ the story” for the United States at the Olympics, the skater’s publicist arranged a conference-call interview between Jansen and several newspaper and news-service reporters throughout the nation in September. She said it would be the print media’s only opportunity before the Games to speak with Jansen about 1988.

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“In looking back, I wouldn’t have done it any differently,” he said then. “I felt I should go out and give it my best shot. I know Jane would have wanted me to do that.

“All of my grief was for my sister Jane, not for myself. That day, I didn’t practice at all. I spent a lot of time crying, lying in bed, walking around. I never thought about the race until it was time to go to the rink. I remember the fall if I really think about it. I don’t remember a lot before or after that.

“It was almost like it didn’t seem real. The day before, I felt nobody was going to beat me. Then, I got on the ice, and my skates wouldn’t stay stable beneath me. They were wobbling. I just didn’t feel comfortable at all. Maybe my concentration wasn’t what it normally was. That was obvious from my fall. But I learned that you’ve got to get up and go on with your life.

“I still think about Jane very often. But I’ve accepted her death. It’s an adjustment anybody has to make when they lose someone they love.”

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That was his last word on the subject until Wednesday, when a reporter at a press conference here asked: “Dan, would you talk about ’88?”

Jansen sighed and said: “Briefly, sure.”

For the next 10 minutes, he went through it one more time.

“It never goes away,” he said in September. “That’s who you are to people. It’s been difficult for me because I’ve been competing every year since and have been working hard looking forward to the ’92 Olympics. But there hasn’t been a single interview where I haven’t been asked about ’88.”

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At the same time, he acknowledges that the public’s admiration for him--he received between 5,000 and 10,000 letters from around the world--has opened doors. It is not entirely because of his skating that his face is on 10,000 boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, or that Apple Computers asked him to tour as a motivational speaker. He is proud that people consider him courageous.

“I hope some people have learned from the experiences I’ve had,” he said. “But I would like to also be known for my achievements. I’m sure most people are not aware of my achievements, that I’ve been a world champion and a World Cup champion. With speedskating not being in the public eye, we get attention only every four years. That’s something we have to live with. But after the Olympics, I hope people will know me for both my achievements and my courage.”


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