The big day finally arrived,
Dan was fueled with excess energy. He was nervous. More restless than anything.
Just hours before his race, Dan rode the stationary bike at an alarming speed and then jumped off it to go outside and take a brisk run in the below-freezing temperatures outside.
When it was finally time for him to line up for his 1000 meter race, Dan still felt “off.” It wasn’t until he heard, “Go!” that he felt like he was good.
He skated. And skated. And skated. As he passed his coach on each round, he looked for his time. He could quickly do the math and see that he was ahead of his own record. He was feeling good.
Then he slipped again.
Like so many times before, his dream of any Olympic medal came crashing down around him.
It was a continuation of his twisted record of high expectations meeting disappointing results.
Dan Jansen grew up in a big Wisconsin family. Not just big. Huge. He was the youngest of 9 children. They did everything together growing up, including ice skating.
All of the Jansen kids ice skated at one time or another. They trained rigorously in the wind and snow during the winter. And played various other sports during every other season.
But it was Dan who was obsessed.
All he could think about was skating.
At 16, Dan set a Junior World Record in the 500m and came in 16th in the 1000 meter. His next stop was the Olympics.
Dan gave up the “other sports” and made up his mind to be an Olympian.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Far from it. For every up in Dan Jansen’s life, there was a down, it seemed.
When he was just finally ready to compete, he sliced a tendon on a skate in a freak accident in his hotel room.
He would have to take six weeks off from training.
After that, he trained and trained and trained for the World Cup in Holland.
And just when he thought he was ready to win, he lost his strength.
His legs would barely carry him around the ice. In despair, he watched his competitors glide past him.
He had mononucleosis — a virus that drains your energy and enlarges your spleen. It would be life-threatening if not treated.
It was clear. He had to rest.
It took more rest than he expected, but Dan was finally healed.
And so he returned to training. He was determined to make the best of his situation and qualified for the 1988 Olympic trials. He was ready to compete again. He was ready to win.
But nothing would be easy in his world.
Just eleven months earlier, his baby sister, Jane, had been diagnosed with leukemia.
She had been in and out of treatment and remission for the year leading up to Dan’s Olympic Games, and the two laughed and talked of Dan’s gold medal.
But when it came time for Dan to leave to go to Calgary, where he would compete, he was torn.
Jane had recently been re-admitted to the hospital. Her health was deteriorating. But it had deteriorated before and she bounced back.
Jane told Danto go. She would bounce back again.
Dan believed her. His sister wanted him to go.
He kissed Jane and told her he’d see her when he got back — with a medal.
But that wasn’t to be.
His goodbye would be the last time Dan saw Jane.
It was six in the morning when Dan got a phone call from home. Less than 12 hours before he would compete in his event.
It was his mother on the phone: “Jane died, DJ. She was just too weak to make it.”
Dan cried. He cried on the way back to his room. He cried when he told his roommate, who also knew Jane. Then they cried together.
But deep down, Dan knew he had to go on.
So when it was his turn, he lined up at the start for the 500-meter speedskate. Pale-faced. Zoned out. Heartbroken.
And then he jumped. It was a false start. Dan had never had a false start in his career.
He lined up again. Waiting. Thinking of Jane. His sister. His best friend.
He mindlessly started the race of his life. Jane’s race.
But his loss was too heavy. He tried to give it his all, but something inside of him told him he didn’t deserve to win.
And then it was like death just sneaked up behind him and kicked his left skate out from under him. Dan went down, taking his opponent with him.
They both quickly got back up, but Dan’s Olympic medal was gone.
When the race was over, Dan beat himself up. First for not winning. Then for worrying about not winning when his sister just died.
He was sad. He was confused. He felt defeated. Mentally and physically.
But he still had the 1000 meter event.
On the outside, Dan had it all together. He looked confident. And ready.
He started the race confidently. He made all the hardest turns expertly.
But on the last 200 meters, on a straightaway, Dan rolled over too far on the outer edge of his skate and hit the ice. He was down.
Dan Jansen’s 1988 Olympic Games were over. The easiest part of the race became his undoing. Another devastating “down” moment.
Dan flew home with his family to bury Jane. He justified his Olympic loss by telling others that, “It wasn’t right that I should win a medal when my sister was not yet buried.”
He grieved — but he continued to train. For the next 50 months.
He made it to the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. But he only finished 4th in the 500 and finished 26th in the 1000. Again, he went home without a medal.
After six months of intense work, Dan felt as if he was able to do what had been impossible for him to this point.
It was time to win an Olympic gold.
Between 1992 and 1994, Dan skated the 500 in less than 36 seconds. Four times.
He was the only skater to ever do that.
He was finally ready for the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. The best speed skater in the world.
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Dan would win this event. But if history was an indicator of nothing else in Dan’s life, it certainly indicated that he would go down.
And that’s exactly what happened.
The ice was brittle. Dan’s skates wouldn’t grip just right. The ice chipped away.
He wobbled. Lost speed. And didn’t place in his best event.
Dan was mentally broken again. He felt like a failure.
Worse, he was surrounded by hundreds of supporters who expected him to blow away the competition.
But it was the words of his therapist, Dr. Loehr, that were top of mind for him: “You can go down, but just make sure you come back up.”
That’s exactly where Dan found himself in this 1000 meter race. He had slipped again. At another Olympic event.
Remembering the words of Dr. Loehr, he refused to let it get in his head.
It was a slip. Not a fall.
He recovered and kept on moving. Lap after lap after lap.
He entered the last 50 meters, no knowing what his time was, but the crowd was deafening. Their cheers were outrageous, so he knew it must be good.
He crossed the finish line. In first place.
Behind his name on the leaderboard were two letters: WR.
Not only did Dan Jansen win a gold medal. He broke the World Record in 1000 meter speed skating by .11 seconds.
He took his victory lap with his 8-month-old daughter who he named after his sister, Jane. He finally won Jane’s gold.
You won’t understand the joy of winning until you’ve failed along the way.
That’s the uncomfortable truth about success.
You’re going to get hurt. You’re going endure falls, slips, setbacks, and pain. People you love are going to experience hardship — and you’re going to have to watch, knowing you can’t do anything about it.
Ordinary people give up. They look at the consequences of trying and decide that they aren’t willing to face the battle another day. They make excuses for quitting. They chase another tactic that seems less painful.
But champions know that on the other side of heartbreak is everlasting glory.
That world record, that multi-million dollar payday, that romance of a lifetime, that business you’ve always wanted to start, that bold move you’ve been waiting an entire lifetime to make — that only happens once you face the demons of failure, pain, and emotional tragedy.
If you’re in a “down” moment right now, get back up. Your world isn’t over. The prize you wish to win isn’t gone. You’re not dead. You’ve just been bloodied and bruised.
So stand back up. Get back to work. Train. Work. Push. Grind. Fight.
Your best is yet to come.