by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CALGARY, Alberta — Somewhere inside the Olympic ice oval here lies a happy ending that no one can find. Dan Jansen, a 22- year-old American, was skating for all the right reasons Sunday night: for the gold medal, for the years he has trained, for Jane Beres — mostly for Jane — his sister, who died of leukemia Sunday morning, and who had wanted him to win as much as anyone. Stories like that are supposed to work out, aren’t they? Sorrow balanced by glory? And yet here, in the 500-meter sprint, was Jansen, the world speed-skating champion in this event, charging into the first curve, losing his balance, falling, sliding, crashing into the opposing skater, then the wall, then tumbling out in a perfectly tragic posture, palms forward, as if to say: “Why me? Why now? Why this?”

No happy ending. The first American story of the XV Winter Olympics comes with a tumble and a teardrop. Was there anyone back home who wasn’t pulling for Jansen? Anyone who hadn’t come to know him as the day wore on, and the television, like a whispering aunt, told his sad story:

Jansen, the youngest of nine children, (all of them, at some point, skaters) had dedicated his Olympic efforts to his dying sister, Jane, a 27-year-old mother of three. She had been sick for a year. He had spoken with her on the phone, tried to, anyhow, early Sunday morning, at the hospital in Wisconsin. Before she died, his older brother, Mike, gave her a kiss and whispered: “That was from Dan.”

When the sad news reached Calgary, the U.S. team rushed to Jansen’s support. Speed skating is a sport, like many winter sports, ignored by America except during the Olympics. These men work alone most of the time, in freezing cold, in solitary sweat. In reality, they only have each other.

“Earlier today, we tried to have a quiet moment to pull together for Dan,” explained Erik Henriksen, the captain of the U.S. team. “Everything any of us did was dedicated to his sister’s memory.”

He sighed. He was sitting with his teammates — all except Jansen — minutes after the competition ended. The whole night had been dreadful. None of them had done well.

“As soon as Dan fell, my heart sank. I’m not used to seeing so many things go so bad . . . in a time that’s supposed to be as wonderful as the Olympics.” SLUMP OF DEFEAT

Wasn’t that the way most of us felt? Aren’t the Olympics supposed to be a time of glory, of finishing with a smile? Yet the image that remains of Jansen
— like that of ex- Olympians Jim Ryun, Mary Decker, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner — is a slump of defeat. For a long time, he sat on a wooden bench inside the oval, head down, eyes closed. Cameras whirred in on him, just a few feet from his face. It was not a fair way to grieve, but this is the world we live in; a tragic story is a popular story. And the same root that feeds our curiosity also gives birth to our compassion.

So it was the TV viewers around the world shared in Jansen’s sorrow, saw his fiancee, Natalie Greiner, put her arm around him, saw his boyish face tight with a veil of grief no one should have to endure.

And so it was that one reporter was dispatched to speak with him — a pool reporter, it is called — and when she came back, she stood on a chair in a room full of several hundred journalists, and as she read his words, her voice began to tremble and she seemed about to cry. ONE MORE CHANCE

“I talked with my family before and they said to just go out there and do the best I could,” Jansen had said. “Try and put as much out of my mind as possible . . .

“She was alive (when he spoke with her) and she could understand me but she couldn’t talk back. But I got to talk with her, I was very happy about that. And later on, I called again and they told me she had passed away. . .

“The fall was so fast I can’t really remember much. I knew my first 100 meters wasn’t normal for me. As soon as I got to the turn, the next thing I knew I was in the pads. . . .

He didn’t say much more. There wasn’t much more to say. The loss of the medal was tiny compared to the loss of his sister. He was asked about the 1,000-meter race on Thursday, his only other Olympic chance, and he said he would be there.

“Jane would have wanted that.”

So much rides on these Games. Too much, perhaps. We ignore the sports for four years then act as if our very breath depends upon them. It’s so big, such a stage, that every emotion, every ounce of human frailty, is magnified like small print under a looking glass. Dan Jansen had been skating 18 years for that race Sunday night, and nobody knew him, and now everybody does. There were even cameras set for Sunday morning at the hospital in Wisconsin, to record Jane’s reaction. These are the Games. We want to know everything.

And this, sadly, is what we saw Sunday night: Happy endings are guaranteed for no one, and a tragedy that comes when the world is watching hurts just as much as when we are all alone. The Olympics, they say, are meant to teach us about winning and losing. But not always in that order. CUTLINES Jansen Jane Beres Speed skater Dan Jansen of West Allis, Wis., holds his head after falling in Sunday’s 500-meter race.


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