Jansen skates on the edge of redemption

February 10, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- He is a flash on ice, the fastest man on skates.

He turns a slippery corner at 40 mph.

He is a hero in Norway, a winner of World Cup races and a setter of world records.

But for American speed skater Dan Jansen, the Olympic medal remains the last elusive goal of his career.

Jansen's Olympic experience now spans four Winter Games, three presidential administrations and three versions of the Soviet sports machine.

And the country where he made his Olympic debut in 1984, Yugoslavia, no longer exists.

He has fallen hard, yet come back every time. Now, this is his last chance to win an Olympic medal. And Jansen makes no effortto hide his goals or his feelings.

"I am here to win, and I'm not afraid to say it," he said. "I am here to do my job, and the best is the best."

To most Americans who tune into speed skating during Olympic years, Jansen remains the Heartbreak Kid, a figure of sorrow frozen in time.

In 1988, hours after his sister, Jane Jansen Beres, died of leukemia, he attempted to race and win the 500 meters.

He fell and wept.

Two nights later, a few strides from the finish in the 1,000 and a sure medal, he fell again.

His was the face of agony.

But the reality is that Jansen is winding up a career built on success and that his life is filled with happiness and contentment.

He has brown hair, deep-set eyes, and thighs roughly the size of Indiana.

Jansen is built low to the ground, powering himself along the ice like a Corvette. From afar, he makes the sport appear deceptively easy. But up close, the hard work is apparent.

Speed skating looks about as fun as digging ditches.

Jansen, the youngest of nine, is 28, and starting a family of his own. He and his wife, Robin, have a 9-month-old daughter, Jane.

Robin Jansen has given him support and anchored his life. His daughter has brought him joy, enabled him to gain new perspective on his career.

"This past year, when we had Jane, it changed my outlook on everything," he said. "Skating is still important to me, and I very muchwant to win, but I really can leave training at the rink. When I go home, I know Jane is going to be there looking at me."

His full-time job is to skate and win. And through most of his career, he has been the world's dominant sprinter, winning more than 50 races and 30 World Cup medals.

Twice in the past three months, he has broken the record in the 500, becoming the first man to skate the oval in less than 36 seconds.

"It is like Roger Bannister running the four-minute mile," said Jansen's coach, Peter Mueller.

Breaking the record for the first time last December on the Olympic ice in Hamar "was something I dreamed about for a long time," Jansen said. The Norwegian crowd roared when he crossed the finish and chanted his name.

Then, Jansen set the record of 35.76 at January's World Championships in Calgary, Alberta.

"I've been wanting to take the 500 to a new level, and I've done it," he said.

"Now, I know what it feels like to go so fast," he said. "Sometimes, it's a little awkward, because we've never reached those speeds before. But in the corners, it's all about feeling and confidence. If you're not confident going into those corners at 40 miles an hour, then you're done."

Despite his successes and his records, Jansen's career remains unfulfilled. There is an empty space under his name, a space reserved forOlympic titles that have never been won.

In 1984 in Sarajevo, he was just a kid, gaining experience. In 1988 in Calgary, he was grieving.

But in 1992 in Albertville, France, he simply did not perform at his best. On the final turn of the 500, he hesitated ever so slightly and finished fourth.

In the 1,000, he was 26th.

According to Eric Heiden, who won five speed skating golds in 1980 at Lake Placid, N.Y., things will be different for Jansen this time.

"Now, you look him in the eye and the look is there," Heiden told the Associated Press. "It's a hard look, very focused. He has a bad history of succumbing to pressure, but he's saying to himself, 'I am the best in the world, and here's my chance to prove it.' "

Ask Jansen of the past, of his inability to win one Olympic race, and he smiles.

"There's not much I can do about it," he said. "It's something that I want before I leave. But there is not much more that I can do about it."

"All three Olympics have been different," he said.

But all have ended in defeat.

Still, it was after the 500 in Albertville that Jansen decided to race again.

Gliding in the warm-down lane, he shouted to his coach, Mueller, "Pete, you want to do this again?"

And Mueller shouted back: "If you're going to do it, I'm going to do it."

So they are here together. The racer yearns for a medal. The coach wants only to see one man fulfill the last wish of a career.

"I was a skater myself," Mueller said. "I have been coaching for 14 years, and I will always have a void in my life until Dan Jansen wins his medal."

The 500 is Monday. Jansen will race. America will watch.

"If I skate my perfect race, who knows how fast I can be," he said. "I don't set limits. I just look for that perfect race."

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