MILWAUKEE -- 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 speed skating, 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, Canada, 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.
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.
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, when he finished the 500 meters in 36.59 seconds.