If you've been watching speed skating during the Olympics, you may have noticed that the analyst (doing a very good job, by the way) is Dan Jansen. Many people likely know that name, though a lot no doubt don't, or some might have forgotten why the name is so familiar. His is one of the most remarkable stories in Olympic history. Truly. No hyperbole. It wasn't just a big deal in the U.S., but in many ways was as big if not bigger around the rest of the world where speed skating is far more popular.
This video below tells the story, though it leaves out some details and perspective. Jansen was the top speed skater in the world at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, his second. He was supposed to win the Gold medal in the 500 meter race (his best), but perhaps also the 1,000 meters. But the day before his race, his sister Jane sadly passed away of leukemia. A heart-broken Jansen raced, but it was a disaster. He raced in the 1,000, but it too ended poorly.
Four years later, Jansen had another chance to finally win a Gold medal at the 1992 Albertville Olympics, his third Games. He held the world record in the 500. He'd won World Championships. But for inexplicable reasons, he not only didn't win a Gold in either race, he didn't even get any medal. It was a shock to everyone.
By all rights, that should have been his last chance, and his Olympic career over. What the video below leaves out is perhaps the most important, remarkable twist in the story.
Up to that point, the Summer and Winter Olympics were always held the same year and four years apart. But it had been decided to stagger the two Games, so that there would be a different Olympics every two years. They chose to push ahead the Winter Games, rather than Summer, so that meant there would be another Winter Olympics in 1994, just two years later in Lillehammer. Dan Jansen would be able to make that. Four years would have been too long. But not two years. So, he had another chance. One more Olympics for the greatest speed skater in the world, who had lived through tragedy, to win a Gold medal -- or at least some medal, any medal.
But again, for some other inexplicable reason, he didn't do well enough in his specialty, the 500 meter race, and finished out of the medal stand. So, he only had one chance left -- and a chance that most people considered small at that point. And that was for 1,000 meters, which was not his best race.
And in his last race, in his last chance to get just any medal -- Dan Jansen won the Gold.
It was stunning.
And to make the moment all the more emotional, the image of him picking up his brand new baby from the stands and skating around with her made news around the world. All the more notable because she was named after his sister...Jane.
(If you're not in tears by now, you're not trying...)
There's one video I've been trying for years to find, but can't. But it was the proof that this was a worldwide celebration. The night after his win, the American network, I believe NBC, got footage of the race from numerous countries around the world, and edited it together timed to the race itself. So, you had all these foreign announcers in a montage calling the 1,000 meters. And it was impossible not to hear the building excitement in their voices when it became clear than Dan Jansen actually had a chance to amazingly win. And then the explosion of electric disbelief and utter joy when he does.
With that perspective then, here's the story.
And here's an added treat.
This is Dan Jansen after those 1994 Olympics appearing on the David Letterman Show. He'd been on a week earlier, as a guest with Dave's Mom when she was sent over to Lillehammer to do reports for the program. But this was his appearance in New York. The video quality is terrible, but everything else is great.
And there's a funny footnote to this. In his interview, Jansen makes a comment along the lines of how you wouldn't have believed this if it was a movie. Well...two years later, they in fact made a TV movie of it! It was called, A Brother's Promise: The Dan Jansen Story. And it was actually quite good. Extremely good. I saw it a second time on television about 10-15 years ago, and it held up wonderfully. Unfortunately it's not available on Netflix, but perhaps it can be found elsewhere or might pop up on television. But here's some information about in on the iMDB.
And here's Dan Jansen.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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