The biggest day in Dan Jansen's life began at 6 a.m. with a disheartening wake-up call: Could he talk to his sister one more time before she died?
On one end of the line, in Calgary, was Jansen, 22, the main U.S. hope for a gold medal in men's speed skating at the 1988 Winter Games, less than 12 hours from the most important race of his life, the 500-meter sprint. It was an event a lot of people, including Jansen, figured he would win.
At the other end of the line, in West Allis (Wis.) Memorial Hospital, less than a mile from the speed skating oval where, a week before, Jansen had stood on the winner's platform as the world sprint champion, was Jane, his 27-year-old sister, dying of leukemia.
Mike, Dan's 23-year-old brother, held the phone up to her ear. She was breathing through a respirator and couldn't talk, but she could understand what Dan was saying. Jane, Mike and Dan, the youngest of nine Jansen children, were very close. They had all raced as children, and Mike and Dan had stayed with the sport—Mike narrowly missed making the Olympic team. Jane married a fireman and had three daughters. When she had gone to have a routine blood test last year, after the third child was born, the doctors discovered the leukemia. The disease worked fast. Jane's third child has just turned one.
February 22, 1988
At one point in the phone conversation, Jane confirmed to Mike with a nod of her head that she wanted Dan to skate, not to come home on her account. Dan said all right. Before they hung up, Dan asked Mike to give her a kiss for him, and he did.
Had Jane asked him to, Dan no doubt would have left for the hospital right then and there. After all, last winter he'd been willing to scrap everything, 18 years of skating, to help her. He had volunteered to donate bone marrow to her through a transplant operation that would have incapacitated him briefly and jeopardized his training. But doctors decided that the marrow of another sister, Joanne, was a better match. The transplant using Joanne's marrow took place in early summer, and Dan pushed on toward Calgary gold.
Jane's leukemia went into remission for several months, but in December her condition worsened. "They don't know what was wrong," Jansen said three days before she died. "They don't know why her liver won't work."
He had lived with this all year—Jane going from worse to better to much worse—but for some reason he had never skated better. Jansen, who was World Cup champion in the 500 and the 1,000 in 1986, breezed past the competition in the world sprint championships in his home town just before going to Calgary. "That was a godsend," says another sister, Jan. "If not for those championships, we wouldn't have seen him until after the Olympics." And Jane wouldn't have seen him at all.
But now, in Calgary, the night before the 500, far and away Dan's best event, things were beginning to unravel. His father, Harry, a retired policeman, returned to Wisconsin to be with Jane. Fifteen relatives, including two sisters and a brother, had driven to the Olympics in three vans earlier in the week. Everyone except Harry stayed at the Games, but they found it hard to do much stampeding.
Dan didn't go back to sleep after talking to Jane. Later he went to an early lunch with U.S. team captain Erik Henriksen. While they ate, Henriksen could see Jansen was worried. Describing Jansen's state of mind at the time, Henriksen said, "You know, it's funny, but if you won the gold medal and it was sitting in front of you right now, you'd trade the thing in right away to make her well again."
When Jansen returned from lunch, he found a slip of paper. "I've got a message," he told Henriksen. "But I don't think I want to know what it is."
Jane had been pronounced dead at 8:50 a.m., Calgary time, less than three hours after Dan had spoken to her.
Henriksen called a U.S. speed skating team meeting for about 2:30, and there Dan's teammates said that they would dedicate the Games to Jane. "It seemed to buoy his spirits a little bit," said Mike Crowe, the U.S. coach.
The pairings for the night's races should have, too. The U.S. had lucked out. Jansen would race second, and the Americans' second-best bet, Nick Thometz, the world-record holder in the 500, would go off third, when the ice at the glittering Olympic Oval would still be as smooth and clear as a window-pane. "Clear?" Henriksen had said earlier. "You could cut out a cube of this stuff and put it in a cocktail."
If Jansen had won the gold, a lot of people might have done just that. And there was every reason to expect that he would. After all, he'd won the world sprint championships going away, out-skating one of his chief rivals, East Germany's Jens-Uwe Mey, four times straight, twice in both the 500 and the 1,000. "I've never felt better in my life," he said after his workout Saturday but before his father had gotten the call to come home. "I thought I'd be nervous here, but I was more nervous last year."
All that calm was gone by late Sunday afternoon. As the start of the race neared, Jansen's face was pale, and during his practice laps he didn't have his usual drive. Said Thometz, "He seemed different."
Different? How was he supposed to race on a day like this one? These were the Olympic Games, and playing games must have felt like the last thing he wanted to do. Yet he came out and skated. "I talked to the members of my family, and they said to just go out there and do the best I could," Jansen would say later. "I tried to do that, and I did it pretty well. But in the warmups, my skates felt different. I wasn't gripping the ice, and I didn't feel real solid."
Harry Jansen later told the Milwaukee Journal, "I think he was thinking about Jane. I knew he'd either fall, or he'd skate the race of his life."
It took about 13 seconds to find out which. At 5:10 p.m., Jansen took his place on the starting line. He had won the best position—inside lane to start, outside to finish. Like the other racers, he preferred to finish on the outside because the track was so fast that it was easy to lose control and veer off around the curves, especially near the end of a race when the inside lane is tighter and riskier. Japan's Yasushi Kuroiwa was next to him.
The gun went up. The starter slowly called, "RED...ee..." But before the shot went off, Jansen jumped. "And Dan never jumps," Harry said afterward. Added Dan, "I was sort of confused after that."
Back to the start. Second time. Gun up. Now Jansen had to hesitate at the line. Two false starts and he would have been disqualified. But the start was fair enough—the eighth fastest of the day—though not as quick as Jansen usually motors out. The two racers skated 100 meters without incident and entered the first turn. Then, halfway through that bend, something preposterously awful happened to Jansen: He fell.
His left skate simply gave way underneath him. ABC-TV commentators said that it clipped his right one, forcing him to lose his footing, but a videotape of the race shows that the two skates never touched. He just slipped. "It was so fast that I can't really remember much," he said. "It felt like my skate slipped out from under me. I know that my first 100 wasn't normal for me. I got to the turn, and the next thing I knew I was in the pads."
Jansen tried to save himself with his arm but ended up sliding into the next lane, tripping Kuroiwa (who was given a restart and finished 11th) and crashing sideways into the foam cushioning that lines the rink. So hard did Jansen hit the pads that he bounced directly back onto his feet and, suddenly, was standing perfectly erect, as if nothing had happened and he could go sprinting off again. But then the horror of it hit him. He held his arms high and looked to the sky as if to say, Why me?
Jansen was in a daze. He grabbed his hair, put his hands on his knees, stared at the domed ceiling, all the while skating listlessly around the track. Crowe went out and hugged him, and eventually Jansen got off the ice and sat on a bench in the center of the oval. His fiancèe, Canadian skater Natalie Grenier, comforted him as he tried to figure out what had gone wrong. He had leaned too far to one side as he skated. Could it have been his heart was just too heavy?
Jansen wasn't the only American skater who had an awful day. Right after his crash, his best friend, Thometz, had to take the ice. "I've always thought, if I couldn't do it [win the gold], I'd want Nicky to," Jansen had once said. And now, here was Nick's chance.
Talk about distractions. Even as the shaken Jansen was skating about in the warmup track after his fall, holding his head in his hands, Thometz was lining up to start. So what did Thometz do? He started falsely, got off slow on the second gun, didn't "hit" the first turn, took the final turn sloppily and finished eighth. It was a fitting denouement for a man who, this year alone, has fought the flu and a strange blood disorder that has left him "not as strong as I'd like; I don't feel 100 percent." Thometz's ailment had reduced the number of platelets (clotting agents) in his blood to alarmingly low levels. Most people have seven times as many platelets as Thometz had in December. Had he been bruised, he could have suffered dangerous internal bleeding. He took medication to help restore the platelets, "but it sapped his strength," says his girlfriend, Gretchen Schultz.
So paranoid was Thometz about missing the Games that he refused to let doctors take his platelet count during the three weeks before the Olympics. "I don't want to know," he said. If the count had been low, he would have known he was flirting with danger just by racing.
To round out a disastrous day for the U.S., Henriksen finished 15th and the fourth American, Marty Pierce, was 22nd. The U.S. still didn't have a non-Eric Heiden medal in men's speed skating in the 1980s. "I've never seen so many bad things happen at one place on one day," said Henriksen. "Especially at something that's supposed to be as wonderful as the Olympics."
The day was considerably more favorable for Mey (pronounced MY), who won handily in 36.45, beating Jan Ykema of the Netherlands by .31 of a second and smashing Thometz's world record, which he set last March in the Netherlands, by .1. Akira Kuroiwa (no relation to Yasushi) of Japan got the bronze.
Mey's gold medal was the first the East German men's speed skating team had ever won. (The women had won six going into Calgary.) "It's a wonderful feeling to show people we have men athletes, too," said Mey.
Both Thometz and Jansen have one last chance to make good on their efforts of the past four years—the 1,000-meter race scheduled for this week. Thometz is better at the 1,000 than at the 500, and Jansen has done well at that distance in international competition, but it is not his strongest race.
Sitting together in the stands, Schultz and Jansen's sister Jan broke down and cried as Thometz's hard luck piled up cruelly on Jansen's.
But Jansen didn't cry in public, and maybe, when you think about it, he should never shed tears. After all, the last time Jane saw her littlest brother, he was standing taller than anybody on the rink he grew up in; he was champion of the world.
Why mess with that ending?