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  Finally, Jansen Stands as Lord of the Rings

By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, February 19, 1994; Page D1

Tony Kornheiser
LILLEHAMMER, Norway — Nancy, sit down.

Tonya, shut up.

For this one day it's not your Olympics anymore. Somebody else is renting this space.

There is no better, no warmer, no more uplifting story in the world today than Dan Jansen finally winning his Olympic gold medal.

Aren't enough Wheaties boxes in the world to hold him.

Just four days after Jansen's heartbreaking slip in the 500. Just four days after yet another failure at the distance where he is the best speed skater of all time — Calgary, Albertville, Lillehammer; each time out of the medals. Just four days after his wife, Robin, had seen Dan slip on the third turn and plant his hand on the ice to steady himself. Just four days after she had seen ice spray up ominously beneath his skates, and realized immediately how damaging it was, and she had thrown her hands up to her head and cried, "Why, God? Why again? God can't be that cruel." And drying her eyes she said emptily, "One day we'll understand."

Just four days after that ... the day came.

Before God, the King of Norway, thousands in the overturned Viking ship in Hamar, millions worldwide, and most of his family, Dan Jansen got a world record, a photo opportunity and a shot of redemption — won't be a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard any longer.

This time the ice wasn't too soft or too hard.

This time, as Goldilocks said, this time the ice was just right.

Four days ago Dan Jansen was introduced before the 500 to the crowd as "the Olympic favorite," pressure he found too heavy to carry. In the 1,000, though, they couldn't pin that on him. Jansen was one of a bunch of guys with as good a chance as the rest of the bunch — which was surely a welcome freedom for him.

Jansen wasn't supposed to win this race. He didn't have to win this race. Win, lose or draw, it was going to be his last race anyway; he'd said he was going to retire this year. Because everyone figured Jansen was going to lose this — he'd lost every other Olympic race — and go into the history books with an asterisk the size of Mars, why not push the ragged edge all the way around? When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose.

"Just skate," Jansen said he told himself. "It'll be over soon."

As he had four days ago, Jansen skated early in the program.

As he had four days ago, he bobbled — not once this time, but twice, though not with the telltale spray of ice from the lost edge. Twice he laid his hand down to the ice, as if picking up a penny off the sidewalk.

As he had four days ago, he skated through the finish line, glanced quickly at the photo timer, and stretched his arms out wide — the difference this time was the exultation on his face, instead of the agony.

How strange and wonderful that must have been, to be able to smile after an Olympic race. No falls. No fourths. No 22nds.

Every burden lifted.

Every door open.

So this is what it feels like.

You could see the relief in his eyes. They've always been bright and blue, but this time they were clearer than the fancy new mirrors of the Hubble Telescope.

In the stands the Jansen clan was euphoric. Harry, Dan's father, who'd waited so long for this moment, had his arms up in victory, and the light from his smile could have melted 6,000 Norwegian winters. Robin, Dan's wife, was delirious with joy, hugging her in-laws, bouncing up and down like she was on a spring. This was a victory for all of Jansen's family — and over the years, sharing his tragedies and disappointments, it has extended throughout America, all the way up the ladder to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

A gold medal for Jansen was the one the Americans wanted most of all. There is no more popular, no more respected Olympian than Jansen. The news of his victory showered the Olympic sites like confetti. The Norwegians at the figure skating hall, a few miles away, were so delighted that their announcer interrupted practice to happily inform everyone of Jansen's world record. Brian Boitano, who was on the ice at the time, forgot about his routine and excitedly pumped both fists into the air, then started applauding. Even Tonya Harding briefly diverted her own press conference to congratulate Jansen.

Such is the respect for Jansen throughout the U.S. team, indeed, the whole Winter Olympics world, that earlier this week Mike Eruzione, who will be famous forever for the goal that beat the Soviet hockey team in 1980, said Dan Jansen is "the true Olympian. He doesn't do it for the money or the endorsements — there aren't any for him. He works his heart out month after month, year after year, because he loves his sport. It would be a tragedy after all he put in if he didn't get a medal. I can't think of anyone I root for more."

Excuse me if I get schlocky here. If you aren't moved by Dan Jansen finally winning a gold medal in the final race of his Olympics career, really, if you aren't moved by this, lay down, pal, you're dead.

Four days ago I was one of those writers who watched Jansen lose in the 500, and wrote that looking at the pattern of his career, he seems to choke at the Olympics. I wrote that you could drop him at any speed skating rink in the world and tell him he was racing for the world championship, and 100 times out of 100, he would win. But dangle those five rings anywhere in his sight, and he'd find a way to lose. I'm happy to say I have never been more wrong.

We all know you can't write a story about Dan Jansen finally winning a gold medal without using words like "character" and "perseverance." We also know you can't write a story about Jansen without mentioning his sister Jane, whose death from leukemia in 1988 helped shape our enduring sympathies. Jane died the morning of the 500 in Calgary. Dan skated, and fell, then skated in the 1,000 a few days later, and fell again.

In Calgary and Albertville and in Lillehammer too, there has always been a sense that Dan Jansen was living under a dark star, that some unseen caprice had a thumb pressing on his neck. So it should not go unnoticed that when Jansen took his victory lap, when they threw tulips and kisses and even a Milwaukee cheesehead at him, when the solitary spotlight followed him, shimmering along the smoooth curve of the ice, that baby he cradled in his arms all around the track was his daughter, Jane, named after the sister he dedicated his racing to so many years ago. Jane, with him now, with him always.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post

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