The biggest day in Dan Jansen's life began at 6 a.m. with a disheartening wake-up call: Could he talk to his sister one more time before she died?
On one end of the line, in Calgary, was Jansen, 22, the main U.S. hope for a gold medal in men's speed skating at the 1988 Winter Games, less than 12 hours from the most important race of his life, the 500-meter sprint. It was an event a lot of people, including Jansen, figured he would win.
At the other end of the line, in West Allis (Wis.) Memorial Hospital, less than a mile from the speed skating oval where, a week before, Jansen had stood on the winner's platform as the world sprint champion, was Jane, his 27-year-old sister, dying of leukemia.
Mike, Dan's 23-year-old brother, held the phone up to her ear. She was breathing through a respirator and couldn't talk, but she could understand what Dan was saying. Jane, Mike and Dan, the youngest of nine Jansen children, were very close. They had all raced as children, and Mike and Dan had stayed with the sport—Mike narrowly missed making the Olympic team. Jane married a fireman and had three daughters. When she had gone to have a routine blood test last year, after the third child was born, the doctors discovered the leukemia. The disease worked fast. Jane's third child has just turned one.
At one point in the phone conversation, Jane confirmed to Mike with a nod of her head that she wanted Dan to skate, not to come home on her account. Dan said all right. Before they hung up, Dan asked Mike to give her a kiss for him, and he did.
Had Jane asked him to, Dan no doubt would have left for the hospital right then and there. After all, last winter he'd been willing to scrap everything, 18 years of skating, to help her. He had volunteered to donate bone marrow to her through a transplant operation that would have incapacitated him briefly and jeopardized his training. But doctors decided that the marrow of another sister, Joanne, was a better match. The transplant using Joanne's marrow took place in early summer, and Dan pushed on toward Calgary gold.
Jane's leukemia went into remission for several months, but in December her condition worsened. "They don't know what was wrong," Jansen said three days before she died. "They don't know why her liver won't work."
He had lived with this all year—Jane going from worse to better to much worse—but for some reason he had never skated better. Jansen, who was World Cup champion in the 500 and the 1,000 in 1986, breezed past the competition in the world sprint championships in his home town just before going to Calgary. "That was a godsend," says another sister, Jan. "If not for those championships, we wouldn't have seen him until after the Olympics." And Jane wouldn't have seen him at all.
But now, in Calgary, the night before the 500, far and away Dan's best event, things were beginning to unravel. His father, Harry, a retired policeman, returned to Wisconsin to be with Jane. Fifteen relatives, including two sisters and a brother, had driven to the Olympics in three vans earlier in the week. Everyone except Harry stayed at the Games, but they found it hard to do much stampeding.
Dan didn't go back to sleep after talking to Jane. Later he went to an early lunch with U.S. team captain Erik Henriksen. While they ate, Henriksen could see Jansen was worried. Describing Jansen's state of mind at the time, Henriksen said, "You know, it's funny, but if you won the gold medal and it was sitting in front of you right now, you'd trade the thing in right away to make her well again."