CALGARY -- "After the first death, there is no other," wrote Dylan Thomas. However, sometimes, we wonder. Fresh deaths, even watching the death of hopes or the death of some long labor, arrive with a power that shocks us.

When speed skater Dan Jansen fell Sunday night in the Olympic Oval, millions of people all over America, perhaps hundreds of millions around the world, felt a pain of unaccountable sharpness.

For a young man they barely knew, and for his dead sister, whom they knew not at all, they felt a pity so personal that it seemed to require explanation.

A week ago, Jansen became world champion at 500 meters. Sunday evening, he was the favorite for the gold medal in that event. For a year, his sister Jane, the mother of three young children, has fought leukemia, hanging on. Earlier this month, she told him to race in the Olympics, no matter what. Sunday morning before sunrise, he spoke to her on the phone, although she could not speak back. Dan told his brother Mike, an Olympian in '84, to give Jane a kiss for him. Three hours later, she died. Ten hours later, Dan false-started, then fell, barely 10 seconds into his dash.

Seconds after Jansen crashed into the rink pads, all chance lost, he raised his arms over his head for a moment. Who would know what words to put on that gesture to the heavens? Then, he ripped back his cowl and buried his face and dark hair in both hands.

"As soon as I got to the turn, the next thing I knew I was in the pads," said Jansen, two hours after his fall in an interview with pool reporters. " . . . It just felt like it slipped out from under me . . .

"Not only do I never fall, but I rarely jump {false-start}, either. I was sort of confused after I did that. It was strange . . . Why today, I don't know. I felt the best I've ever felt coming into this race . . . Maybe it just wasn't meant to be."

Every family faces deaths. Nothing is more commonplace or profound. Every individual has failures; countless people come up short on projects that cost years of effort. All that is universal. However, what befell Jansen on this Valentine's Day combined so many forms of sadness that many minds were truly troubled.

"As soon as he fell, my heart sank," said U.S. team captain Erik Henriksen. "I'm not used to seeing so many things go so bad so fast and see a time that's supposed to be so wonderful as the Olympics go so sour."

Such a tangle of emotions can seem almost beyond endurance -- too complex and contradictory to resolve. For instance, if Jansen had won a gold medal Sunday evening, would that really have been so much better? Would perfect self-command at such a time be an unmixed tribute? If he had won, how could his family (in which all nine children have been competitive speed skaters) have truly celebrated? Or truly mourned?

The Olympics, in its best moments, symbolizes a worldwide desire for a community of man in which peaceful competition and a spirit of fellowship are paramount. In that way, the Olympic movement aspires to be a celebration of human accomplishment through labor, willpower and courage.

At first blow, what happened to the Jansen family Sunday seems like a denial of the striving and idealism the Olympics wishes to embody. Work your hardest, do your best to love, and a disease or a misstep can still undo you.

But, as we digest the sorrow, is that really the day's true kernel?

"I had always planned on staying and skating because I know that is what Jane would have wanted," said Jansen. Now, he must decide whether or not to race in the 1,000 meters on Thursday -- an event in which he is one of the serious contenders, but not the favorite. Though his mother and father are back home in West Allis, Wis., Jansen says he will.

"It's very important," said Jansen. "Once again my family wants me to just go on now . . . I know Jane would have wanted that . . . I'm just going to go out there and try to put this behind me. . . . There's nothing I can do about today. . . . We'll see what happens Thursday."

That he failed in the Olympics on this Sunday evening means nothing -- except that he is human, except that his grief overpowered his craft. He false-started. He clicked his skates in a turn. Can't a fine man's emotional wires be crossed by the death of someone he loves?

In a sense, everything we do, all that we build or discover or accomplish, is an act of will performed in the face of our mortality. Even for those of the deepest faith, some of that defiant courage is necessity for living.

That Jansen tried, and that he says he will try again on Thursday, even if he falls again, means everything.

The refrain for this Sunday evening might be: "And death shall have no dominion."