All the misery, all the heartbreak, evaporated in a magnificent span of 1 minute, 12 seconds and 43 hundredths of a second. At the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, all of Dan Jansen's disappointment of the past 10 years, seemed, at this most glorified of athletic achievements, worth it. All the agony he had suffered for all those years suddenly had a purpose, a meaning.
Jansen, who was considered the best speed skater in the world, had established world records while winning world championships and World Cups. The only award he had not captured was a medal in the Olympics, the biggest stage for his sports. He was 0 for 7 in Olympic competition, in the 500 and 1,000-meter races. No medals at all. Each time, disaster struck in one form or another. First, Sarajevo in 1984. Then Calgary in 1988. Then Albertville in 1992.
Calgary was the worst. Jansen's older sister, Jane, had died of leukemia the day of the 500-meter race. Later that day, with the world rooting for him, a grief-stricken Jansen -- the gold-medal favorite -- fell. Later that evening in the 1,000, with the world cheering even harder for him, he fell again.
Four years later, in the Albertville Games, redemption and success did not come as everyone had hoped. Jansen lost his balance in a turn in the 500 and finished fourth. Everyone who followed the sport thought Jansen was cursed. They became even more convinced later that day when Jansen staggered home 26th in the 1,000.
Then came the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, his last shot at a medal. He was 28. He was the favorite to win the 500, his best event. Yet, Jansen amazingly and agonizingly slipped again, finishing eighth.
He went into the 1,000, the final Olympic race of his career, with such low expectations that it wouldn't set him up for disappointment if he lost again.
When Jansen takes the ice at Hamar's Vikingskipet Skating Hall before a capacity crowd, he lines up against seven competitors who have better times than his career best in the event. To make matters worse, his timing is off during warmups and he struggles for traction on the ice. He isn't "gripping" the ice well -- and he knows he has to skate at least three-tenths of a second faster than he has ever done, just to have a chance.
The race begins. Jansen skates a dynamic 16.71 over the first 200 meters. He then shoots into the next turn. Jansen's wife, Robin, notices something special about this run, that her husband is skating "as smooth as glass," she would later tell the media.
But in the minds of all of Jansen's fans -- which is everyone, from all corners of the world -- there is doubt. When will disaster strike? At which point? It always does, after all. Every Olympics.
With one hand behind his back, the other swinging at his side, a relaxed Jansen makes it to the next-to-last turn without a hitch. He's now skating in the inner lane, where the turn is tighter and the chance of a fall greater. He is fatigued. Suddenly, he slips, ever so slightly. His left hand grazes the ice, just barely. He loses two, perhaps three hundredths of a second, but he keeps his rhythm and balance. "For some reason, I was calm when I slipped," he would say later. "There was no panic."
As Jansen hits the straightaway, the crowd rises. The entire stadium is in a frenzy as Jansen flies home, crossing the finish line. The clocks reads 1:12.43 -- a new world record.
Jansen raises his arms to the heavens, flings his head back, squeezes his eyes shut, and throws his hands on his head in disbelief. At the same time, wild, uncontrollable applause erupts all around him. "Finally," he says to himself. "Finally."
More than a decade-long saga of Olympic hope, despair and failure was finally over. Jansen is numb. When his time flashes on the scoreboard, showing his first-place finish, his wife and mother hug and scream and jump in place in an euphoric embrace. Jansen's wife is so overcome with joy and emotion that she begins hyperventilating and has to be rushed to get treatment from an emergency medical technician after the race.
"I feel I've made other people happy instead of having them feel sorry for me," he would say later. "I was thinking, 'Just skate.' I figured this was going to be my last Olympic race ever, no matter what happened. Winning here was the only thing left for me to do. It seems like I had to quit caring too much to skate my best."
Everyone in the arena is flushed with joy. The bliss isn't just exhibited by Americans. It is shared by people of every nationality, particularly Norway and Holland, where speed skating is religion. The ecstasy, however, is just beginning.
As emotional moments go, there's perhaps nothing better in all of sports than standing on the center podium at the Olympics, having a gold medal placed around your neck, and having your country's national anthem played for the world to hear, for the world to see. As Jansen stands on the podium, tears roll from Jansen's eyes into the lipstick left by a kiss from Robin.
"I was shaking," Jansen would say later. "I kept saying, 'I can't believe this.' As the anthem plays, his career, his life, flashes before his eyes. All the years of training. All the wins. Some of the losses. At the end, he looks upward and extends a salute. To Jane, his sister.
After leaving the podium, Jansen skates the Lap of Honor, as is
customary in Europe. The arena lights are dim and a spotlight
trails him while the crowd sings along to Strauss's
"VienneseWaltz." Someone throws Jansen a Dutch flag. Then comes
an American flag. Then a bouquet of flowers. Then 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.
Then a security guard passes Jansen's daughter Jane -- named after his sister -- over the heads of photographers and into Jansen's arms. With the spotlight boring in on him, Jansen cradles his daughter tightly and carries her around the rink, to the strains of the waltz.