Return of the Hero

updated 03/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

DAN JANSEN IS WEARY, BONE WEARY. Dressed in a navy-and-maroon warm-up, he has crashed on the living room sofa in his Greenfield, Wis., home and is staring blankly at a big-screen TV. Since his heroics last month in Norway, Jansen has hardly had a moment to himself. He has either been training for upcoming World Cup speed skating events or meeting the insatiable demand for interviews. Such has been the clamor that four people have been drafted to answer phones, and even Dan's parents, Harry and Gerry Jansen, have been consigned to sorting through the mountain of fan mail. And then there was the homecoming parade.

"It was incredible," says Jansen, brightening on the sofa. Over 5,000 friends and neighbors—moved, like everyone else, by Jansen's last-chance record-setting race for Olympic gold—poured out of their houses to line the streets of West Allis (pop. 63,500), where Dan had grown up, as he returned in triumph to the Pettit National Ice Center. "I sure didn't know that was happening," says Dan, breaking into a smile, as Jane, his 10-month-old daughter, plays at his feet with pots and pans and Tupperware that she's looted from a kitchen cabinet.

The Dan Jansen saga—as his wife, Robin, calls it—is in fact a story of two Janes. In 1984, Dan, just 18, competed in the Winter Games in Sarajevo, placing fourth in the 500-meter race. But he didn't skate into the public consciousness until 1988, when, during the buildup for the Calgary Olympics, he was portrayed as the youngest of nine children in a close-knit family—specifically, as the devoted brother of Jane Beres, a mother of three, who had discovered a year earlier that she had leukemia. "I want to go out there and do well for Jane," said Dan, "because she's fought so hard."

In a drama that was watched by TV viewers all over the world, Jansen learned of his sister's death just nine hours before he was to compete in the 500 meters. Dan went ahead and skated because, he said, Jane would have wanted him to. But, unable to concentrate, he fell just 10 seconds into the race. Four days later, he fell again in the 1,000 meters. "I had no feeling for the ice," he said, "no grip at all."

In 1992, at Albertville, France, the script was different, but the denouement was much the same. Then, last month in Norway, Jansen—a Job for our time—seemed destined for the same end. Heading into the last curve in the 500, his best event, he slipped twice and finished eighth. At a loss for an explanation, even Dan began to doubt himself. "Maybe it's not meant to be," he said.

Four days later, during his warm-up skate for the 1,000, Jansen felt that his legs were dead. But when the gun sounded, they came miraculously alive and carried him, after a 10-year pursuit, to a world record and a gold medal. Skating his victory lap, Jansen gathered his daughter Jane into his arms and pointed a finger skyward. Earlier, at the medal ceremony, he had looked up and saluted his dead sister. "I felt inside me," he said later, "that Jane's presence was somehow there."

Since then, Jansen has been reaping the publicity whirlwind. "It's been like exam week for three straight weeks," says Robin, 35, a South Carolina native and former Marriott Hotel personnel manager who married Dan four years ago. "You're mentally and physically drained, but exhilarated."

What is ahead for Jansen? In the immediate future, the World Cup circuit; Dan is leading the standings in both the 500 and the 1,000. "If I win that," says Jansen, the only person to skate the 500 in under 36 seconds, "then it will have been a perfect season." Beyond that he thinks about returning to school to study marketing and, eventually, coaching kids. "But," he says, "I don't really want to plan the rest of my life. I just want to enjoy the moment and spend some time with my family."

Two weeks ago, in case anybody had any doubts, Jansen made clear just how important family is to him when he arrived at the Milwaukee airport. Called up onto a stage to address a cheering throng of 1,000 fans, Dan expressed his gratitude and, announcing "Here it is," pulled the gold medal from his jeans pocket. Then Robin handed Jane to him, and Dan—American flag in one hand, daughter in the other—strode triumphantly offstage. A giggling Robin had to remind Dan that he'd left something behind: the gold medal.

WILLIAM PLUMMER
BONNIE BELL in Greenfield

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