Suddenly everything that had come before acquired a purpose. The out-of-the-money finishes as a green teenager in Sarajevo: not all bad. The falls in Calgary: laced with good. The failures outdoors in Albertville: marbled with lessons. Even the Feb. 14 disaster in the 500 meters at these Olympics, where he the overwhelming favorite, had slipped and finished eighth, seemed of a piece with what occurred last Friday in Hamar's Vikingskipet skating hall. The unlikely had happened when Dan Jansen lost; why shouldn't something astonishing happen again?
After it did, after he won the 1,000 meters in world-record time, thereby ending a decade-long saga of Olympic expectation and futility that has been chronicled around the world, Jansen pronounced himself relieved. But his victory was more than an exhalation. It was a primal scream. It was as if someone had happened upon that Edvard Munch painting, the one that was stolen from an art museum in Oslo two weeks ago, and hung it back on its rightful wall. A gold medal now hung from Jansen's neck, and not even Bonnie Blair's historic gold in the women's 500 a day later—she's now the first U.S. athlete to win the same event in three consecutive Winter Games—could eclipse Jansen's breakthrough.
In seven previous Olympic races, Jansen had never really skated for a medal. He had always skated for other people. He skated for Jane, the sister who died of leukemia during the Calgary Games. He skated for his parents, Harry and Gerry, who had first dropped him off at the rink outside Milwaukee as a four-year-old rather than hiring a sitter to take care of him. He skated for his wife, Robin, and their nine-month-old daughter, Jane; for his coach, Peter Mueller; for all the cheeseheads back in Wisconsin who have never lost faith that he would ultimately win. "I'm supposed to win, something goes wrong, and they can't celebrate," he said after the 500. Perhaps Jansen couldn't become a medal winner because he was thinking like a breadwinner, like someone who had to "bring it home."
He seemed to be still thinking in those terms after his Valentine's Day failure. He sought out Dale Hofmann of his hometown paper, The Milwaukee Sentinel, and told him, "Sorry, Milwaukee." He was still awake at three the next morning, blaming himself that Wisconsinites who were just then tuning in would be disappointed once again. The scores of well-wishers—one man faxed Jansen an analysis of why he had slipped and suggested he affix wooden stabilizers to the sides of his skates to keep calamity from striking again—only heightened his sense of carrying the hopes of others. "You want people to pull for you," he would say. "And it was good because you like to have support. But it was bad because I didn't want to disappoint people anymore."
As the final act approached, the story distilled to a struggle between Jansen's fundamentally good nature on the one hand and what it would take to win on the other. He had faced the press informally right after the loss in the 500. But then he saw his wife and parents, and when their disappointment registered with him, he realized he couldn't cope with a planned formal interview. "I feel so bad," he told his wife as they drove off from the aborted press conference. "Those guys are just doing their jobs, and I should have talked to them." When Jansen heard that an ESPN crew had waited two hours outside the hall for him in subzero temperatures, and that one cameraman had suffered frostbite on two fingers as a result, Jansen tapped out an apology on the Olympics-wide electronic mail system.
How does so soft a touch become selfish enough to win? With work. His coach and his wife had all tried desperately, as Robin puts it, "to get Dan to stand up for Dan." Yet he ultimately won not by seizing something boldly for himself, as those around him had urged him to do, but by being beaten down into expecting so very little. "The way I got relaxed was not to care," he explained. "No matter what happened in the 1,000, my family wasn't going to be gone. And losing the 1,000 wouldn't be as big a shock as not winning the 500. I went in with such low expectations because I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment."
Jansen may have been short selling his prospects before Friday's race, in which Igor Zhelezovsky of Belarus was the favorite. In fact, Jansen had done a great deal of work on the 1,000, both mentally and physically, in the two years since Albertville. He had consulted with Florida sports psychologist Jim Loehr, who has worked with a number of elite athletes who seemed intractably spooked, including Gabriela Sabatini, who won a U.S. Open title in 1990 with Loehr's help by overcoming her fear of coming to the net. Loehr urged Jansen not to specialize solely in the 500. He convinced him that a skater who threw so much of himself into so tense and short a race only manufactured pressure and tempted failure. Before turning in each night for the past two years, Jansen filled out a worksheet to help him set goals. At the top of each sheet he wrote, "I love the 1,000."
To this point it had been an unrequited love. His Olympic history in the race was abysmal: a 16th, a fall, a 26th. "I could open up to 600 meters, but I'd run out of gas in the last lap," Jansen says. So Mueller worked with Jansen on his conditioning. Together he and Loehr turned Jansen from a skater who dreaded the longer sprint into one who looked forward to it.
Jansen had always skated his best 1,000 meters without much forethought. Besides, there wasn't much tinkering needed on his form; he had torn through a hand-timed 1:12.4—equivalent to a world record—only a week earlier in training. So he and his handlers agreed: They wouldn't excessively talk through the race, and Jansen wouldn't go through his usual visualization techniques each night before going to sleep. Jansen would simply skate. Or, as singer Jimmy Buffett urged him to do in a fax, he would "blow the volcano."
But when he took the ice on Friday, Jansen felt out of sorts. His timing was off. He struggled for traction. So he pedaled two hard sprints on an exercise bike to bring his legs to life. And he reversed his decision to "blow the volcano." He might be willing to spill a little lava, but he had to be careful to stay down, not to push too hard—not to "blow" anything.