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  Jansen's Last Moment Is Golden

By Johnette Howard
washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 1994; Page A1

 Dan Jansen, with daughter
 At long last, Dan Jansen got to take a victory lap. Here, he skates with daughter Jane after winning the 1,000. (File Photo)
HAMAR, Norway, Feb. 18 — So this is what Dan Jansen looks like happy. Arms outstretched, palms up, head thrown back and eyes squeezed shut, the applause washing down over him, cleansing him, as he looked up in wonder at the scoreboard and dropped his jaw, knowing he'd just set a world record and won the Olympic gold medal and, as he said later, "finally had the happy ending we've been waiting for."

"I wanted to cry. I wanted to laugh. I said, 'I can't believe this.' I was shaking," Jansen said, still smiling 20 minutes later.

And an hour later ...

And a whirlwind two hours later, after he'd done his first round of postrace interviews with red lipstick on his cheek and leaped atop the podium and fingered his gold medal for today's Olympic 1,000-meter win; after he'd cried through the playing of the national anthem while thinking back to "all the training, all the years, all that's happened"; after he'd skated the Lap of Honor, as is customary in Europe, with the arena lights dimmed and a spotlight trailing him while the crowd sang along to Strauss's traditional "Viennese Waltz".

Jansen made the lap with a tiny U.S. flag in one hand and his infant daughter, Jane, in the other. After he'd been at the official postrace news conference for a while, a Norwegian Olympic official handed him a cellular phone and said, "It's the president calling."

"Our president?" Jansen said, shock registering on his face.

A couple of "okays" later, Jansen kept the phone pressed to one ear and sheepishly told a hushed roomful of reporters: "I'm on hold. ..."

Even as happy endings go, this was perfect: a sweet kid from the heartland who did everything the right and honorable way, absorbed numbing setbacks stretching back years and still triumphed at long last against the sort of odds that make even the president of the United States reach for the phone.

"He said he can't express how much the country was pulling for me," Jansen said, his voice catching with pride.

Today was Jansen's last chance at an Olympic medal and he wasn't even a cinch to make the top three in the 1,000, let alone trim the world record by seven-hundredths of a second.

The 500-meter race was his world-record distance. But he came dangerously close to falling Monday in the last turn and used his left hand to keep himself upright, costing himself fatal milliseconds.

After that race, it seemed the cold feeling of his fingertips brushing the ice would be the memory Jansen would take away from these Games — another sad story to go along with his subpar performance at the 1992 Albertville Olympics, and that heart-wrenching week he had in Calgary in 1988 when his sister, Jane Beres, died of leukemia the morning of the 500 and Jansen spun out in the very first turn that night, as if yanked down by a rope.

A few days later, in the 1,000, Jansen fell again.

By the time he toed the starting line today, almost everyone knew his star-crossed story by rote.

That was one reason Jansen's victory pulled the spectators to their feet and made everyone at Hamar's Olympic Hall (also known as the Viking Ship) forget their national allegiances when he won.

Someone from speed the skating-mad Netherlands threw Jansen a Dutch flag. Someone else threw an American flag to the ice. Soon came a bouquet of yellow lilies, a stuffed animal, a shower of more flowers, and — most comical of all — one of those large, yellow, foam-rubber wedges of Swiss cheese that sports fans in Jansen's home state of Wisconsin wear as hats at athletic events.

Jansen picked it all up and laughed as he briefly tried on the cheese.

"Finally I feel like I've made people happy instead of having to feel sorry for me," Jansen said.

Igor Zhelezovsky of Belarus, who skated first, was today's favorite. Kevin Scott of Canada, the world-record holder until today at 1:12.54, also was in the race.

Even the man Jansen was paired with in the fourth heat, Inoue Junichi of Japan, was among the seven men in this race who had a better personal best than Jansen's 1:13.01.

But the past — all of it — fell away today.

Jansen won in 1:12.47, Zhelezovsky took the silver in 1:12.72 and Russian Sergei Klevchenya captured the bronze in 1:12.85.

When Jansen's time flashed on the scoreboard and he'd leapfrogged both men into first, TV coverage switched to his wife and mother and an unidentified woman at the other end of the rink who were hugging and screaming and bobbing in place in a happy embrace.

(Later, Jansen's wife, Robin, giddily told reporters she was so overcome with emotion: "I nearly collapsed. I had to be taken to the EMT {emergency medical technicians, who pronounced her fine}."

In addition to beating the favored Zhelezovsky, the irony of Jansen's race was he didn't feel well when he went to the starting line. His timing was off, he said.

As on Monday, he said he could feel through his stockingless feet that his skates weren't gripping the ice all that well. Even after his usual 500-meter warmup lap, he said his legs felt too hyped, not quite right, so he left the ice and "did a couple hard wind sprints on an exercise bike." That seemed to help.

In the 72 hours between Monday's disappointment and today's race, Jansen said he'd had a "very difficult" time handling his spinout in the 500. He was depressed, he said, because it was another Olympic race he was supposed to win and didn't.

He wound up talking about it endlessly with his sports psychologist, his family, his U.S. teammates and coach — anyone who would listen. "I didn't feel it was helpful to me to hold it in, bottle it up inside," he explained.

Unlike at the 1992 Games, when he quit training for a few days between the 500 and the 1,000 out of self-pity, Jansen kept training for the 1,000 here.

By race time, he hadn't exactly landed on any special wisdom (though he said he had to laugh about a fax he got from a U.S. fan who said he knew why Jansen slipped in the 500 Monday, and urged him to put wooden slats in the side of each skate because his feet needed more support. "And no, I didn't try it," Jansen joked.) Jansen said he simply told himself to quit skating haunted.

"I thought, 'Skate ... just skate,' " he said. "I figured this was going to be my last Olympic race ever, no matter what happened. I wanted to win because I've had so many world records, world championships and World Cup victories. This was the only thing left for me to do. Because of my story, I had the support of so many people. It seems like I had to quit caring too much to skate my best."

The funny thing was, this wasn't a perfect race either. Jansen had a minor slip in the next-to-last turn and his left hand nearly touched down again.

But he stayed upright by "not panicking, not pushing too much" on his blades. He had a lot of speed going by then, he knew, and though he hadn't heard his last split time he could tell "something was up" from the roar of the crowd. He held on, made it to the finish somehow. And then?

"My first thought was, 'It finally happened for me,' " he said.

Before long, President Clinton was on the line telling Jansen he couldn't wait to watch it tonight on TV, and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton called from an aircraft somewhere over South Dakota, saying she'd been on "pins and needles" waiting for the result.

The crowd here in Hamar had serenaded him sweetly, and on the medal podium a million images blurred. It was his racing life rushing before his eyes: the lung-searing work, the ups and downs, the three medal-bereft Olympics before this, and the face of his dearly missed sister Jane, whom he'd named his first-born child after, the child he hugged now in his arms.

"When I go through hard times, I think of her a quite a bit and it's not a sad feeling anymore. That's gone," Jansen said. "It's just a feeling that she's still with me."

So that little salute he gave toward the heavens when the "Star Spangled Banner" was over? "To Jane," Jansen said.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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