1. Archive

Jansen comes up short

Like Niagara, he was famous for the falls, but this Savoie Saturday was smacking with Winter Olympics promise for America's tragic speed skater.

Within me, I was cheering for Dan Jansen. But I've seen too many Disney movies. After his 1988 trauma, and a world of compassion, I expected a happy ending.

Then, on a rainy and chilled Albertville afternoon, the careening victim from the Calgary Olympics went out and carved a new kind of personal torment.

Again, it's D.J. on the rocks.

Jansen stayed on his feet this time, but the world record-holder at 500 meters finished a ghastly fourth. You have to wonder, is Dan ever to smile from the Olympic medal roost?

"Everything felt so right," Jansen said. "Before the race, I was having fun. So relaxed, and confident that I'd win either the gold medal or silver.

"Never thought about falling. Never thought about Calgary. Never thought about finishing poorer than second. I was enjoying the crowd and the whole atmosphere of my big moment."

Four years ago, on the day leukemia had killed his favorite sister, a grieving Jansen stumbled to the ice in the Calgary Olympics' 500-meter race. Our hearts skidded with him.

Four days later, the sweet kid from Wisconsin fell again in the 1,000 meters. Millions winced, shed a lot of tears, and agonized with Dan. He would receive 10,000 letters of sympathy.

"I appreciated all the warmth, but I wanted nobody's pity," the policeman's son said a few days ago. "What I've been burning to do is have my happy day at the Olympics, and let everyone share with me."

Now 26, Dan said he "expected to finish first in the 500, or at worst lose a photo finish to my old rival, Germany's Uwe-Jens Mey." Three weeks before, Jansen had beaten Mey by a flying blade, breaking the world record with a 36.41-second clocking in Davos, Switzerland.

Jansen did have one worry early Saturday, seeing rain pepper an Albertville speed-skating oval that has trouble holding a good freeze. He's an especially big, especially powerful skater who tends to dig too deeply into less-firm ice.

But as he raced around, Jansen felt "it's going okay; maybe not a gold medal, but surely a silver." Upon finishing, he arose from a competitive crouch to be "extremely surprised" at the 37.46 time.

"It was slow ice, but I have no excuses," he said. As in 1988, Jansen faced adversity with strength and character, refusing to duck a pack of inquiring Olympic reporters. "Once I saw my time, I knew medal hopes in my best event, the 500, were dead. As expected, Uwe grabbed the gold, but what's shocking is for me to lose to a couple of guys who've never been close to me all year."

This time for Jansen, the Olympics would become a Lee Iacocca kind of nightmare. Losing to both Germany and Japan. Gold medalist Mey was understandable, but flags with red dots unexpectedly waved in triumph as Toshiyuki Kuroiwa finished second and Japanese countryman Junichi Inoue took the bronze.

Jansen has another chance coming at these XVI Winter Olympics, but his skills at 1,000 meters are less than at 500. "I can medal, and it really would be nice, even to get a bronze," he said, shrugging.

"I feel relieved, getting around an Olympic track without falling. I'm not as disappointed at finishing fourth as people might think. I prepared myself 100 percent. I skated the best I could. What else can anyone ask?

"Just wasn't meant to be."

After Jansen's double fall in Calgary, amid the tons of mail that attempted to console him, including a letter from President Reagan, there was a package from a disabled young Pennsylvanian.

Mark Arrowood from Doylestown, who competed in the 1981 Special Olympics, told Dan, "I want to share one of my gold medals with you because I don't like to see you not get one."

Jansen's parents hung the gold medal in a trophy case at their West Allis, Wis., home. Arrowood died two years ago. But his gold medal remains at the Jansens'. Dan still has no other.