Mom wasn't singing in the rain or crying, either

JOHN EISENBERG

February 16, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

ALBERTVILLE, France -- His mother was sitting in the front row of the metal bleachers, across the ice from the finish line at the Olympic speed skating oval. Someone had given her a big teddy bear button to pin to the chest of her dark jacket. A cold, steady rain was coming down.

She had just watched her son fall short again in the Olympics: fall short, but not fall. And that was enough for her -- yes, more than enough, on this day of shattering anticipation and fear, to satisfy Dan Jansen's mother.

She knew too much. That was the thing. She knew life wasn't always going to be a Doris Day movie. She knew every story wasn't blessed with a happy ending. She knew this fourth-place finish might hurt now, but there was an upside.

So she sat there in this depressing rain, a gentle, retired nurse from outside Milwaukee, twisting her clear plastic rain bonnet around and around in her hands. The wife of a retired police detective. Raised nine children, lost one. And she smiled.

Everyone was expecting sorrow, and she smiled.

"What I feel is relaxed," Gerry Jansen said. "What I feel is relieved."

What else was a mother to feel? Let the others shake their heads and cry a little. A mother doesn't shed tears over a gold medal won or lost. Not when she just wanted her son to have his life back. Not when she just wanted it all to end, once and for all.

"These last four years we have all been in a state of suspension," she said. "All of this waiting and waiting, and the phone calls every day, and the stress going on and on. Never letting it go. Everyone saying, 'Well, how's he going to do? Can he do it? Is he ready?' "

She never asked for her family's worst tragedy to go front-page for everyone to see, but it happened, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. One of her daughters died of leukemia just as Dan was preparing to skate in the Calgary Olympics four years ago, and he went pale and fell in two races. It was one of those awful events your heart wouldn't let you shake.

But it didn't ruin Dan, not at all. He went away to college and worked out his grief all alone, then got married and started skating again and got better and better and better, eventually breaking the world record twice in the 500 meters.

"A person not as strong as he is would have just said, 'I just can't do this, can't come back,' " his mother was saying in the rain. "It took a strong person to come back. There were people who figured he couldn't. But he did."

He did. He was beyond 1988. But still trapped by it.

"Every interview, it kept coming up," his mother said, "and then all the time other people would bring it up, too. He had to live it over and over again. It was just one of those moments. . . ."

With the Albertville Olympics approaching, the problem was, what could he do about it? What he could do was pull a Doris Day and win a gold medal, but so many people kept saying that to him, and there was just no margin of error.

Or he could fall. Again. That was what caused Gerry Jansen to close her eyes at night and pray: please, no falls. Anything but falls. It was the most basic instinct of motherhood: protect your young. Put your arms around them and hope not necessarily for the best, but please, not the worst.

"Honestly, for me it's enough that he finished the race," his mother said when it finally was over. "That's what I wanted. We're satisfied. He started and finished the race. He skated a good race. That's fine. He's got the 1,000 [meters] in a few days. Maybe now he can skate that better."

He did cover the first 100 meters quickly yesterday, but the ice was thick and slow from the rain, and it was clear he couldn't settle into his customary powerful stride. Gerry Jensen could see that from the first row of the metal bleachers on the far side of the oval.

"It's tough for him on soft ice like this," she said. "He weighs 190 pounds and his skates dig into the ice. That's tough. I know he was ready to race. He was prepared. He wasn't thinking about 1988. He has the best concentration of anyone in the world. That's how he made it back here at all."

She knew he would be upset about it, but she just couldn't think about medals. She knew too much. She knew now the questions finally would end, that the root of his trouble was that it takes four years to write new Olympic chapters -- and here, finally, was a new one. So maybe now he could have his life back. Maybe he could be someone other than the heartbreak kid.

"It feels complete now," Dan Jansen's mother said, sitting there in the rain. "It does."

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