Suddenly everything that had come before acquired a purpose. The out-of-the-money finishes as a green teenager in Sarajevo: not all bad. The falls in Calgary: laced with good. The failures outdoors in Albertville: marbled with lessons. Even the Feb. 14 disaster in the 500 meters at these Olympics, where he the overwhelming favorite, had slipped and finished eighth, seemed of a piece with what occurred last Friday in Hamar's Vikingskipet skating hall. The unlikely had happened when Dan Jansen lost; why shouldn't something astonishing happen again?
After it did, after he won the 1,000 meters in world-record time, thereby ending a decade-long saga of Olympic expectation and futility that has been chronicled around the world, Jansen pronounced himself relieved. But his victory was more than an exhalation. It was a primal scream. It was as if someone had happened upon that Edvard Munch painting, the one that was stolen from an art museum in Oslo two weeks ago, and hung it back on its rightful wall. A gold medal now hung from Jansen's neck, and not even Bonnie Blair's historic gold in the women's 500 a day later—she's now the first U.S. athlete to win the same event in three consecutive Winter Games—could eclipse Jansen's breakthrough.
In seven previous Olympic races, Jansen had never really skated for a medal. He had always skated for other people. He skated for Jane, the sister who died of leukemia during the Calgary Games. He skated for his parents, Harry and Gerry, who had first dropped him off at the rink outside Milwaukee as a four-year-old rather than hiring a sitter to take care of him. He skated for his wife, Robin, and their nine-month-old daughter, Jane; for his coach, Peter Mueller; for all the cheeseheads back in Wisconsin who have never lost faith that he would ultimately win. "I'm supposed to win, something goes wrong, and they can't celebrate," he said after the 500. Perhaps Jansen couldn't become a medal winner because he was thinking like a breadwinner, like someone who had to "bring it home."
He seemed to be still thinking in those terms after his Valentine's Day failure. He sought out Dale Hofmann of his hometown paper, The Milwaukee Sentinel, and told him, "Sorry, Milwaukee." He was still awake at three the next morning, blaming himself that Wisconsinites who were just then tuning in would be disappointed once again. The scores of well-wishers—one man faxed Jansen an analysis of why he had slipped and suggested he affix wooden stabilizers to the sides of his skates to keep calamity from striking again—only heightened his sense of carrying the hopes of others. "You want people to pull for you," he would say. "And it was good because you like to have support. But it was bad because I didn't want to disappoint people anymore."
As the final act approached, the story distilled to a struggle between Jansen's fundamentally good nature on the one hand and what it would take to win on the other. He had faced the press informally right after the loss in the 500. But then he saw his wife and parents, and when their disappointment registered with him, he realized he couldn't cope with a planned formal interview. "I feel so bad," he told his wife as they drove off from the aborted press conference. "Those guys are just doing their jobs, and I should have talked to them." When Jansen heard that an ESPN crew had waited two hours outside the hall for him in subzero temperatures, and that one cameraman had suffered frostbite on two fingers as a result, Jansen tapped out an apology on the Olympics-wide electronic mail system.
How does so soft a touch become selfish enough to win? With work. His coach and his wife had all tried desperately, as Robin puts it, "to get Dan to stand up for Dan." Yet he ultimately won not by seizing something boldly for himself, as those around him had urged him to do, but by being beaten down into expecting so very little. "The way I got relaxed was not to care," he explained. "No matter what happened in the 1,000, my family wasn't going to be gone. And losing the 1,000 wouldn't be as big a shock as not winning the 500. I went in with such low expectations because I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment."
Jansen may have been short selling his prospects before Friday's race, in which Igor Zhelezovsky of Belarus was the favorite. In fact, Jansen had done a great deal of work on the 1,000, both mentally and physically, in the two years since Albertville. He had consulted with Florida sports psychologist Jim Loehr, who has worked with a number of elite athletes who seemed intractably spooked, including Gabriela Sabatini, who won a U.S. Open title in 1990 with Loehr's help by overcoming her fear of coming to the net. Loehr urged Jansen not to specialize solely in the 500. He convinced him that a skater who threw so much of himself into so tense and short a race only manufactured pressure and tempted failure. Before turning in each night for the past two years, Jansen filled out a worksheet to help him set goals. At the top of each sheet he wrote, "I love the 1,000."
To this point it had been an unrequited love. His Olympic history in the race was abysmal: a 16th, a fall, a 26th. "I could open up to 600 meters, but I'd run out of gas in the last lap," Jansen says. So Mueller worked with Jansen on his conditioning. Together he and Loehr turned Jansen from a skater who dreaded the longer sprint into one who looked forward to it.
Jansen had always skated his best 1,000 meters without much forethought. Besides, there wasn't much tinkering needed on his form; he had torn through a hand-timed 1:12.4—equivalent to a world record—only a week earlier in training. So he and his handlers agreed: They wouldn't excessively talk through the race, and Jansen wouldn't go through his usual visualization techniques each night before going to sleep. Jansen would simply skate. Or, as singer Jimmy Buffett urged him to do in a fax, he would "blow the volcano."
But when he took the ice on Friday, Jansen felt out of sorts. His timing was off. He struggled for traction. So he pedaled two hard sprints on an exercise bike to bring his legs to life. And he reversed his decision to "blow the volcano." He might be willing to spill a little lava, but he had to be careful to stay down, not to push too hard—not to "blow" anything.
Jansen laid down a brisk 16.71 over the first 200 meters. The man he was paired with, Junichi Inoue of Japan, had come out fast too, so at the 400-meter mark, where the skaters cross over from one lane to the other, Jansen was able to ride briefly in Inoue's slipstream and slingshot into the next turn. Here Robin actually dared feel good as she watched with Jane. Dan wasn't working too hard. "He was smooth as glass," she would say.
But Jansen being Jansen, it was only a question of where danger would strike. It jumped him on the next-to-last turn. He skated now in the inner lane, where the turn is tighter, the G forces greater and the risk of a fall keener. He was tiring, too, but this time when he slipped, his left hand barely grazed the ice. He lost two, perhaps three hundredths of a second, yet he kept his rhythm largely intact. "For some reason I was calm about it," Jansen would say. "I told myself that if I tried to get back too fast, I would slip again."
On the ensuing straightaway, his coach nearly clapped Jansen on the back out of excitement. He finished in 1:12.43, beating out Zhelezovsky, who won the silver medal, and Russia's Sergei Klevchenya, who took the bronze. The man the press was calling "the Bill Buckner of winter" a few days earlier had gone Joe Carter. "The slip, he just skated through it," Mueller would say later. "This time the man upstairs took care of him."
"Maybe he did," Jansen added. "Or maybe Jane had something to do with it."
Maybe it was his sister Jane who skated for Dan this time. Or maybe Robin had; hyperventilating, she rushed to get treatment from an emergency medical technician after the race. Virtually everyone else in the hall seemed flushed, as if they, too, had just gone 1,000 meters in a minute twelve and change. The joy wasn't peculiarly American but was shared by people of every nationality, particularly citizens of Norway and Holland, where speed skating is much more than a quadrennial curiosity. "There is something in his eyes that tells you he is honest," said Ben van der Burg, a former Dutch 1,500-meter champ who has watched Jansen on the circuit for years. "They are faithful eyes, like a big Labrador dog. To do what he did—six tenths of a second under his personal best—is unbelievable. To do it here is even more unbelievable."
There is no such disbelief at anything Blair does. Over the same period that Jansen has made winning an Olympic medal seem like the most difficult task in the world, she has made it look routine. It's not, of course. "Once you start thinking it's routine, it's going to be taken away from you quicker than you can think," she says. But Blair has won so many gold medals now that she literally doesn't keep count. At a race in Calgary last month, someone pointed out that Olympic wins in her specialties, the 500-and 1,000-meter sprints, would give her five golds, more than any female American Olympian, including sprinter Evelyn Ashford, swimmer Janet Evans and diver Pat McCormick, who have each won four.
"Is that what it is?" Blair had replied.
So she skates with a freedom Jansen has never had. "With all my races I try to react like it's the Olympics," she says. "So when I come here, there's never anything different." She measures herself against the clock, not her competition. Gold is incidental. And calamity isn't a consideration. "We don't go in with thoughts of falling in mind," says her coach, Nick Thometz. "Everybody is nervous when they go to the line, but she does a good job of channeling that nervousness."
To break her 39.10 world record in the 500, set at the 1988 Olympics, Blair and Thometz felt she needed a split time of 10.5 over the first 100 meters. Opening in 10.6, she lost to the clock, finishing in 39.25. Susan Auch of Canada won the silver medal, and Germany's Franziska Schenk won the bronze, but that was incidental, of course, because Blair didn't race against them.
In Monday's 1,500, though she didn't medal, Blair did beat the clock, setting a personal record for the distance by almost half a second—her first personal best in six years. She could still leave Ashford, Evans and McCormick in her ice shavings by winning the 1,000, which was scheduled for Wednesday.
Blair has become so comfortable on the podium that she happily sang along with the anthem on Saturday. Jansen, by contrast, was too busy soaking up the sensations of this unfamiliar place to do much more than mouth the words. He wanted to absorb everything, not merely because the moment had been so long in coming but also because, at 28, he was almost certainly competing in his last Olympic race. Those big Lab eyes began to fill up, and at "gave proof through the night" he gave proof, a blink sending a tear down to where some of Robin's lipstick lingered. Jansen didn't want it to, but the anthem was ending. So he turned his eyes upward and snapped off a salute to his sister. "Finally I feel I've made other people happy instead of having them feel sorry for me," he said later.
Under ordinary circumstances, the tarted-up men and women at the Olympic Amphitheatre across town would have staged the kiss-and-cry spectacles on ice at these Olympics. But figure skating has been given over to tawdry melodrama this year. Speed skating has had more pure drama. After descending the podium Jansen skated a victory lap, and the crowd in the Vikingskipet scooped him up in warm arms of noise. A security guard passed little Jane over the heads of stunned photographers and into her daddy's arms. With the arena dark and the spotlight boring in on him, Jane's father carried her once around the rink, to the strains of a waltz.
At the press conference the emcee asked the media for a round of applause, and we cynical wretches, who have irregularly dogged Jansen and occasionally flogged him, actually provided it. The runners-up seemed almost happy that they had been beaten. As Jane teethed on her dad's gold medal, Dan said he was so happy for Robin. Robin said she was so happy for Dan. When President Clinton called, and moments later Hillary called, you half expected North Korean strongman Kim II Sung to call, too.
Thank goodness the Norwegians have such an unerring sense of these moments. Were this back in the U.S., the P.A. announcer might have been busy intoning the winning prize number on a ticket stub, or giving the license plate number of a car with its lights on. In Hamar on Friday the man on the mike read poetry. "I remember your poet, Robert Frost," he told Jansen. "He said, 'Nothing gold can stay.' But you who knows what it means to have lost, can really stay gold today."
The sentiments were largely apt but not entirely. This gold so long in coming will linger for many tomorrows.