WEST ALLIS, WIS. -- Rough business waits down the road for nice guy Dan Jansen. He knows it, his coach knows it, his family knows it. Everybody knows it but nobody is sure what to do.

If he were a train, he'd be three-quarters of the way through a long, dark tunnel. The light at the end would be the Olympics, getting bigger and brighter and he'd be hurtling toward it, knowing from experience how it can be blinding when you come out the end, wondering what surprises lurk this time.

"I know, I know," said Jansen, laughing and throwing up his hands in a mock bid to ward off the evil spirits. "Stop talking about it, willya?"

"It's simple," said his coach, John Teaford. "He's going to be the story for the U.S." at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.

"It's a tornado waiting for him," said former U.S. speedskating coach Bob Corby, now a trainer for the Milwaukee Brewers. "He's got to insulate himself from the media circus so all that stuff from last time doesn't come up, so he can focus: This is a speedskating race, the gun goes off and the fastest time wins."

"He had a lot of heartache and I wish it wouldn't come up again," said teammate and 1988 gold medalist Bonnie Blair. "But it will."

"He may not think of it until he's on the {starting} line," said Jansen's father, Harry, a retired lieutenant on the West Allis police force, "but at some point he's going to stand there and say: 'Here I am, and the last time I was here my sister died and I fell down.' "

Truly, that's it in a brutal nutshell; the Jansen family didn't put roots down in the frozen Wisconsin soil by dodging trouble, after all. And even if Dan Jansen somehow could avoid confronting his troubled past, a cast of thousands will be around to remind him of it soon enough. His is not a story quickly forgotten.

Three years ago, on the morning of the day he was supposed to win an Olympic medal -- very possibly gold -- in the event for which he'd trained doggedly for eight years, his favorite sister, Jane, died after a long bout with leukemia. Jansen, youngest of nine kids in an uncommonly close family, was staggered.

Even now, the weird timing astonishes him. "It was just such a strange thing," he said, shaking his head, "the two things coming together on the same day. A week either way, even a few days, it could have been different. But you can't change it. You just have to learn from it."

With a nation engrossed in his story and a media horde hovering, Jansen, then just 22, had to make a quick and horribly public decision: to skate or not to skate.

With his family's blessing, he skated that night, but not far. On the first turn of his 500-meter sprint, carrying the hopes of millions who were watching around the world on TV, Jansen lost a skate-edge and crashed into the restraining boards at the Calgary Olympic Oval.

As if that weren't enough to absorb, it got worse. Four days later, he returned to the oval for a chance at redemption in the 1,000 meters, his second-strongest event. And he was on a world record pace, far faster than any other competitor, churning along two-thirds of the way through when he went down again, inexplicably this time in the seemingly trouble-free zone, a straightaway.

No one at his level falls in a straightaway in an important race, let alone in the Olympics. What happened?

"I don't know," says Jansen, still baffled by that second fall three years later. "A little bit of everything, I guess."

Now he's back. Actually, he never left -- he's only back in the eyes of the 99.99 percent of Americans who consider speedskating a quadrennial event.

With the '92 Olympics a little over a year away, Jansen again is the top U.S. men's contender at 500 meters and cofavorite with his longtime training partner, Nick Thometz, for a medal in the 1,000.

"The only three in the world with a chance to win at 500 right now are {German} Jens-Uwe Mey, {Soviet} Igor Zhelezhovski and Dan," said Teaford, the U.S. coach, overstating the case only slightly, "so if Dan skates to his potential, he should win a medal. And no one would be happier to see him get it than me."

How come? "Americans are exposed to a really romantic vision of the Olympics," Teaford said, "but when you get there, you find a lot of your heroes aren't really heroes. With someone like Dan, it's a comfort to see that there really are heroes; that America's family members are out there winning. No drugs, no big salaries, no scandals; just kids you'd like to see your sons and daughters marry."

Teaford chuckled, reflecting on whispers from some European competitors a few years ago that Jansen, whose legs are marble columns, might have sculpted them with the help of steroids.

"That all disappeared when his dad went over the next year to watch the races," said the coach. "He has a head the size of a pumpkin and your hand disappears when he shakes it. They took one look at Harry and said, 'Uh, okay, your boy's clean.' "

This, then, is the story of clean Dan Jansen's return, which is just how he'd rather you didn't put it. "I've been in the top three in my sport for the last eight years, so it's not like I have something to prove. I'm not returning from anything."

But he'd better get used to it. The media "are going to do what they want" with his story, Jansen said. "They'll probably make it a revenge-type thing, which is totally off. They'll build it up -- 'He wants it worse than ever,' blah, blah, blah.

"I'm just going to try to go into it like any other meet. Just go out there and skate my best."

Unless something changes, he'll be in good shape to do that. The last few years have been eventful for Jansen, but all in a positive way.

He got married to an almost-Doublemint-twin from Charlotte, N.C. ("My twin sister and I got to the finals, but we didn't make the cut" for the chewing gum ads, said wife Robin.) They moved into a pin-neat duplex a couple of miles from his parents' house here and within hailing distance of his seven siblings and 22 nephews and nieces, and he took a marketing job with Miller Brewing Co. that lets him train and race full-bore.

"He got bigger," said his mother, Gerry, a retired nurse. "I guess he got quieter, if that's possible," said Teaford.

Jansen also has kept skating around the world, finishing fourth in the last two world championships, a comedown after winning the worlds in 1988, a week before his Olympic debacle. The back-to-back fourths were disappointments, he said, but he's had several second- and third-place finishes on the World Cup circuit, including a loss by just 12/100ths of a second to Mey in the most recent World Cup meet last month in Karuizawa, Japan.

He will return to Europe Jan. 21 for eight weeks on the World Cup circuit, the highlight coming Feb. 23-24 when he will square off against Mey again in the world championships in Inzell, Germany.

While his finishes the last two years have been inconsistent, Jansen is "clearly the first-, second- or third-best 500-meter skater in the world," said Corby, the national team coach in 1980-'84. "He and Mey are the best, and it'll be between them for the gold at Albertville, for sure, unless someone comes out of the woodwork. If Dan doesn't get a medal this time, it would be a disaster."

Mey is Jansen's and everyone else's nemesis. "He won just about every time he laced up his skates last year," said Teaford of the German who took the gold at Calgary in '88. But Jansen regards the challenge of passing Mey by February 1992, as reasonable.

"He's very consistent. He skates real fast all year long, but we close the gap and usually catch up to him by the worlds. If I skate my best, I can beat him, but it takes me all year to build up to that point," Jansen said.

Crucial to that quest, he concedes, will be his own psychological state when the Olympics roll around again. He figures three things are vital to Olympic speedskating success, in this order:

"One, you've got to know how to skate. There are people with more power than I have, but they can't get it to the ice.

"Two is psychological, and I've never had trouble with that before. I'm confident when I need to be, but next year will be interesting because of all that goes on prior to an Olympics.

"Three, training. I put that last because I know we train harder than the Russians, yet you put a Zhelezhovski on the last leg of the 1,000 and nobody can touch him."

Numbers one and three are taken care of. After 12 years and two Olympics (he was fourth in the 500 in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, at age 18), Jansen knows how to skate, and his coaches say he's one of a few on the U.S. team who never need prodding to fulfill demands of their training regimen.

That leaves psychological state, which is hard to predict.

No one doubts Jansen's will to win. "When he's not racing, you almost need to poke him with a stick to wake him up," said Teaford, "but when he's getting ready to race, there's a furnace roaring inside him."

"The competition is the most fun -- it's my favorite part," said Jansen. "I actually skate better when I'm a little nervous. You have to take that tension and turn it into something positive, and at the same time relax. When it's a good race, it's effortless."

But almost everyone -- coaches, teammates, family, friends -- worries about the distracting crush of attention Jansen must endure between now and his date with Olympic destiny.

"You wish you could say to the media, 'Hey, leave it alone; that's four years ago and he's here to skate,' " said Blair, a close friend of Jansen for a decade. "It's really too bad that's how people remember D.J. -- that he fell, instead of how well he skated when he won the worlds."

Blair wishes the U.S. International Speedskating Association had a full-time, traveling media relations aide to buffer its elite athletes -- Jansen in particular -- from an interview-hungry world during Olympic buildups.

"I spent up to three or four hours a day, four days a week just doing interviews and photo sessions in 1988," she said. "Our sport needs the publicity and I was glad to help, but it doesn't do anything for your training."

Teaford, the coach, agreed, saying angrily that USISA will be "throwing Dan to the lions" if it leaves him unprotected in the months before the Games. But USISA Vice President Terry McDermott said: "We lived through the Heiden thing {when Eric Heiden won five gold medals in 1980}. I can't imagine this being any worse."

"The problem with people like D.J. and Bonnie isn't that they have to talk 200 times about their strategy or even the death of their sister," said Teaford.

"The problem is, they have to talk 200 times about how long the track is, how long their race is. They'll be talking to people who know nothing about the sport, and that's not the fault of the press. They just don't get the information they need in advance."

Such is the quandary of the more obscure Olympic sports, which roll on unnoticed for years, but it's probably worst with speedskating, the sport that has brought the United States more Winter Olympic medals than all others combined.

Now comes a double whammy: the Olympics and the incredible saga of Dan Jansen revisited.

He could, of course, just shut the door, turn out the lights and tell the world to look him up after the Games. "But I don't like to be rude," said Jansen. "I know reporters have a job to do."

"He's just the same as ever," said Sean Callahan, who handles media relations part-time for the speedskating team.

"I walked him back to the Olympic Village after he fell the first time, and he was the same Dan even then. We had an escort of Royal Canadian Mounted Police to make sure he got back to his room okay.

"Dan was in a funk. He was grieving. But when we got to the door, he remembered to say, 'Thank you,' to each of the Mounties. That's just the way he is. He never changes."