Speed skater Jansen falls into unexpected fame

THE HEARTBREAK KID

February 02, 1992|By Bill Glauber

She would never forget the call from Canada. On a day of grief and loss, she would always have this moment, this conversation with a son who was shaken and uncertain.

Should he race?

For him, mourning the death of a sister, the question was wrenching. For his mother, though, there could be only one answer. Jane had died, and there was nothing anyone could do, now.

So, of course, she told her son to try.

No one said anything about winning. This was the Olympics, wasn't it? This is what he had worked toward for four years. He had come barreling out of that rutted track of ice that sat by an expressway near their home in West Allis, Wis. He was the youngest in a family of nine, establishing his identity in a swirl of exhaust fumes and biting winds, becoming one of these confident speed-skating sprinters who never fell, never made a mistake.

Should he race?

Forget winning. Just try.

That night, the mother watched the son on television. The whole country was riveted, attaching itself to one family's sorrow. The Olympic Winter Games in Calgary, Alberta, had become something more than a video winter vacation. In the arena -- an expanse of ice the size of four football fields surrounded by plastic seats and covered by a steel roof -- the crowd went silent. This wasn't sports anymore. It wasn't even theater. It was a tragedy come to life.

Others would see an athlete, strong and invincible. But the mother saw only a pale, nervous boy, her Dan. And as she waited for the gun, as Gerry Jansen looked closer at the television set, one thought kept rushing through her head:

:. "Oh, my son, what have I asked you to do?"

*

Four years later, Dan Jansen has yet to outrace the past.

In the United States, he is remembered as some sort of "heartbreak kid." He is an Olympic idol, whose picture adorns cereal boxes, whose story is told over and over during television commercials, whose presence is requested annually at dozens of banquets around the country.

Jansen's fame comes not from triumph, but from tragedy.

On the morning of Feb. 14, 1988, his sister, Jane Beres, died of leukemia. Hours later, in the Winter Games, he raced in the 500 meters. Favored to win a medal, he fell, and wept. Four nights later, he raced in the 1,000 and stumbled again.

For most Americans, the story ended there, with Jansen on the ice, legs outstretched, face frozen in anguish, arms folded over his head.

But in Europe, where speed skating is a revered sport, Jansen remained a star, respected for his ability to stride faster than others on an oval of ice. He won a world sprint championship in 1988 and finished fourth at the world championships the past three years. On Jan. 25, he established the world record in the 500 meters, buzzing around a track in Davos, Switzerland, in 36.41 seconds.

Now, with the 1992 Winter Olympics of Albertville, France, approaching, Jansen is again before the American public. In the televised Olympic miniseries, Jansen is a designated hero. But understand, he does not skate for redemption, nor will he attempt to win a medal to honor his sister.

His goal, repeatedly stated, is to simply win because that is what he is trained to do.

"I like the individuality of this sport," he said. "I'm sort of shy and introverted. Skating has been a way for me to express myself. I like the fact that when you succeed, you can feel proud of yourself. That's what I want, to be proud of myself."

On a track, Jansen looks like a bus, only balanced on two wheels instead of four. He is 6 feet, 190 pounds, extracting his power and speed from his flanks. In a sport where rhythm often means everything, Jansen performs with meticulous care.

"I'm still getting better," he said. "I don't want to set limits on myself."

Yet even as he improves he is hemmed in by the past, reminded constantly during interviews of his Olympic falls and grief. But for Jansen, the images of 1988 are now faded. He has moved on, even if others have not.

He is 26. In April 1990, he married Robin Wicker, whom he met in Charlotte, N.C., while doing a promotion for Maxwell House.

Jansen also has an entourage, a cocoon that protects and

nurtures him. Peter Mueller is the coach who forces him to train harder, to build his body stronger. Jim Loehr is the sports psychologist who helps him deal with stress that builds before the Olympics. Jansen's father, Harry, a retired policeman, travels the European circuit to shield his son from questions about the 1988 Olympics.

Jansen also has a publicist and an agent. He earns a comfortable five-figure living, serving as a spokesman for Miller Brewing Co., posing for pictures to be featured on boxes of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, speaking before assemblies and banquets around the country.

Had he simply raced and won in 1988, Jansen probably could have lived and trained in obscurity for the remainder of his career. Instead, he fell twice, and his story touched a country.

"I hope people learn from my experience as well as I did," he said.

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