THE HEARTBREAK KID Speed skater Jansen falls into unexpected fame

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She would never forget the call from Canada. On a day of grief and loss, she would always have this moment, this conversation with a son who was shaken and uncertain.

Should he race?

For him, mourning the death of a sister, the question was wrenching. For his mother, though, there could be only one answer. Jane had died, and there was nothing anyone could do, now.

So, of course, she told her son to try.

No one said anything about winning. This was the Olympics, wasn't it? This is what he had worked toward for four years. He had come barreling out of that rutted track of ice that sat by an expressway near their home in West Allis, Wis. He was the youngest in a family of nine, establishing his identity in a swirl of exhaust fumes and biting winds, becoming one of these confident speed-skating sprinters who never fell, never made a mistake.

Should he race?

Forget winning. Just try.

That night, the mother watched the son on television. The whole country was riveted, attaching itself to one family's sorrow. The Olympic Winter Games in Calgary, Alberta, had become something more than a video winter vacation. In the arena -- an expanse of ice the size of four football fields surrounded by plastic seats and covered by a steel roof -- the crowd went silent. This wasn't sports anymore. It wasn't even theater. It was a tragedy come to life.

Others would see an athlete, strong and invincible. But the mother saw only a pale, nervous boy, her Dan. And as she waited for the gun, as Gerry Jansen looked closer at the television set, one thought kept rushing through her head:

:. "Oh, my son, what have I asked you to do?"

*

Four years later, Dan Jansen has yet to outrace the past.

In the United States, he is remembered as some sort of "heartbreak kid." He is an Olympic idol, whose picture adorns cereal boxes, whose story is told over and over during television commercials, whose presence is requested annually at dozens of banquets around the country.

Jansen's fame comes not from triumph, but from tragedy.

On the morning of Feb. 14, 1988, his sister, Jane Beres, died of leukemia. Hours later, in the Winter Games, he raced in the 500 meters. Favored to win a medal, he fell, and wept. Four nights later, he raced in the 1,000 and stumbled again.

For most Americans, the story ended there, with Jansen on the ice, legs outstretched, face frozen in anguish, arms folded over his head.

But in Europe, where speed skating is a revered sport, Jansen remained a star, respected for his ability to stride faster than others on an oval of ice. He won a world sprint championship in 1988 and finished fourth at the world championships the past three years. On Jan. 25, he established the world record in the 500 meters, buzzing around a track in Davos, Switzerland, in 36.41 seconds.

Now, with the 1992 Winter Olympics of Albertville, France, approaching, Jansen is again before the American public. In the televised Olympic miniseries, Jansen is a designated hero. But understand, he does not skate for redemption, nor will he attempt to win a medal to honor his sister.

His goal, repeatedly stated, is to simply win because that is what he is trained to do.

"I like the individuality of this sport," he said. "I'm sort of shy and introverted. Skating has been a way for me to express myself. I like the fact that when you succeed, you can feel proud of yourself. That's what I want, to be proud of myself."

On a track, Jansen looks like a bus, only balanced on two wheels instead of four. He is 6 feet, 190 pounds, extracting his power and speed from his flanks. In a sport where rhythm often means everything, Jansen performs with meticulous care.

"I'm still getting better," he said. "I don't want to set limits on myself."

Yet even as he improves he is hemmed in by the past, reminded constantly during interviews of his Olympic falls and grief. But for Jansen, the images of 1988 are now faded. He has moved on, even if others have not.

He is 26. In April 1990, he married Robin Wicker, whom he met in Charlotte, N.C., while doing a promotion for Maxwell House.

Jansen also has an entourage, a cocoon that protects and

nurtures him. Peter Mueller is the coach who forces him to train harder, to build his body stronger. Jim Loehr is the sports psychologist who helps him deal with stress that builds before the Olympics. Jansen's father, Harry, a retired policeman, travels the European circuit to shield his son from questions about the 1988 Olympics.

Jansen also has a publicist and an agent. He earns a comfortable five-figure living, serving as a spokesman for Miller Brewing Co., posing for pictures to be featured on boxes of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, speaking before assemblies and banquets around the country.

Had he simply raced and won in 1988, Jansen probably could have lived and trained in obscurity for the remainder of his career. Instead, he fell twice, and his story touched a country.

"I hope people learn from my experience as well as I did," he said.

The Calgary Olympics were supposed to be the Games that Jansen dominated. In 1984 in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, he was just an 18-year-old kid, stunned to be on a world stage, wide-eyed whenever a star like Scott Hamilton or Phil Mahre walked by. He finished fourth in the 500 meters, missing a bronze medal by only .16 of a second. Four years older and stronger in 1988, he was in the midst of a marvelous season.

But clouding his training was the health of his sister Jane, 27. A year earlier, she learned she had leukemia. Everyone in the family said she would live to see her brother win a medal. ABC-TV even made plans to show her watching Dan's race. But on the morning of the Olympic 500, she died, leaving behind three daughters and a husband.

"Before she died, I spoke with her on the phone one last time," Jansen said. "I spent a lot of the day crying, walking around."

He talked with his mother. He talked with his oldest brother, Jim, who was with him in Calgary. They told him that Jane wanted him to compete.

So he did.

"It was almost like it didn't seem real," he said. "I was kind of being pulled in every direction. I wasn't sure if I should skate. If it wasn't me or my family, someone else would question it. If I went out and won, others would be questioning that, too."

He went out on the ice for the warm-up in the 500, and for the first time in his life, he felt his skates wobble.

"I had no control," he said. "Nothing at all. The day before the race, I felt like no one would beat me. But I know now that the 500 just wasn't going to happen."

He fell on the first turn. He wept. He was taken in for an interview. And he wept again.

Four nights later, he came back to race in the 1,000. Again, unbelievably, he fell.

"I don't really remember it at all," he said. "I just tried to go about it like I did any other race. But it wasn't. I just didn't have the concentration. I lost the right edge of my skate, and I couldn't bring it back. I rolled over. And that was it."

When he returned home, he attended his sister's funeral. He made plans to restart his career. But what he never expected -- celebrity -- soon enveloped him.

He received 5,000 letters. He was given a gold medal by a Special Olympian from Doylestown, Pa. He was lauded by President Reagan.

"Even as all of this was happening to me, I had no idea how many people saw this and went through this with me," he said. "When I got done with it and read the letters, that taught me that there were a lot of people watching."

Now, there are thousands of people listening to Jansen. He speaks to schoolchildren and businessmen, delivering a message of hope and inspiration. He symbolizes the United States' version of the Olympic spirit.

Even in defeat, he emerged triumphant.

"I learned you have to get up and go on with your life no matter what the situation is," he said. "I didn't feel like it was a mistake to go out and skate. I still don't. I've learned to look forward to tomorrow, every day."

For Jansen, tomorrow is now. Again, he is favored to win Olympic medals in the 500 and the 1,000. Throughout the winter, he has been locked in a terrific rivalry with Germany's Uwe-Jens Mey. In six races at 500 meters, Mey holds a 3-2 advantage, with one sprint ending in a tie.

Those around him say Jansen can win golds.

"He has handled everything great," said Bonnie Blair, a 1988 gold medalist. "But he has to handle it all over again. I think he has been skating really well. I think he can have a strong Olympics. I just hope there won't be so many outside pressures to interrupt him."

Jansen says he no longer thinks about winning. He continually uses the word fun to describe his preparation for the Games.

"I'm making this year more of a celebration of my career," he said. "I'm not making it a one-time shot."

But there is a sense that Jansen is trying to create a final chapter. The country has seen his courage. Now, he wants to show everyone his ability.

This time, he will skate outdoors in a temporary rink in a French town set against the Alps. When he reaches the start line, his mother will look closely. Let others see an invincible athlete. Gerry Jansen will see only her son.

Undefeated.

"All he is interested in is doing his best," she said. "He knows what happened in 1988 was not any fault of his. He had to go back and put it in the right light. He has done it. He is waiting for Albertville."

Speed skating

TOP U.S. HOPEFULS

* Dan Jansen: The world record holder in the 500 meters (36.41 seconds), Jansen is favored to win gold medals in the 500 and 1,000 meters. He won two gold medals and a silver at the World Cup finals in 1991.

* Others to watch: Dave Besteman, who finished 10th at the 1991 World Sprint Championships behind Jansen's fourth, has a chance for a medal in the 1,000 meters. Eric Flaim is coming back from a knee injury, but he won the silver medal in the 1,500 in 1988. Nick Thometz, whose rare blood disorder held him back in 1988, holds unofficial world records in the 500 (36.23) and the 1,000 (1:12.05).

* Bonnie Blair: Blair is the only returning U.S. gold medalist (in the 500) for the 1992 Games. She has won both 500s and both 1,000s on the World Cup circuit this year, including a 500-meter sprint in Warsaw, where she collided with another skater. Her world record of 39.10 seconds for 500 meters, set at the 1988 Olympics, is likely out of reach in Albertville, where the skating oval is mushy.

* Others to watch: Moira D'Andrea and Michelle Kline are the up-and-comers, but they are a tier below Blair.

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