Fourth-Place Medal

The story of Dan Jansen's tragic crash at the 1988 Olympics

If you didn't remember the name Dan Jansen you remember it now, what with Visa's goosebump-inducing commercial narrated by Morgan Freeman airing non-stop on television over the past month. But chances are that if you were around for the 1988 Winter Olympics and had forgotten about the story of Dan Jansen, the memory came flooding back when those indelible images flashed across the screen.

But what really happened that day when Jansen fell in Calgary? Each time I've seen that commercial, somebody in the room has a different recollection of the events that transpired on Feb. 14, 1988. To set the record straight, Fourth-Place Medal decided to go back through the archives to retell the tragic story of Dan Jansen and the 1988 Olympics:

Jansen's sister, Jane, had been diagnosed with leukemia in 1987, shortly after giving birth to her third daughter. For the rest of the year Dan dedicated his speed skating career to his sister, who had undergone a bone marrow transplant after another sibling was found to be a match (Dan was one of nine children). One week before the Olympics, with his sister going through another round of chemotherapy, Jansen won the world championship in the 500-meter sprint and entered the 1988 Olympics in Calgary as the heavy favorite.

Much of his family had traveled to Calgary for the Games but returned when Jane's condition worsened. She had planned to watch the Olympics from the hospital, but by the morning of her brother's race, Jane was too weak to hold up the phone. On the morning of her death, she spoke to Dan for the last time.

Later that day he told reporters of the conversation, "She was still alive, she could understand me but she couldn't talk back to me. She did understand what I said and I'm very happy about that, but I would like to keep the rest private.''

Dan asked his brother Mike to give his sister a kiss and then hung up to prepare for his race. Five hours later she died. When Dan got the call from Wisconsin, he said he never considered leaving Canada. "That's what Jane would have wanted," he said.

In the race, Jansen wasn't right from the beginning. He was charged with a false start, a rarity for him in competition. On the second start he got off the line slowly and fell behind. Later he said he had trouble gripping his blades into the ice, something that had also bothered him in warm-ups. Approaching the first turn, Jansen fell. "It felt like it slipped out from under me," he said.

The race was eight seconds old.

Jansen crashed into his competitor, Yasushi Kuroiwa, and knocked him out of the race. (The two later embraced and Kuroiwa was eventually granted another start.) The American hit the padded wall so hard that Dave Anderson of the New York Times said the remnants of the crash "resembled the skid marks of an automobile accident."

Four days later, Jansen competed in the 1,000 meter event. Through 600 meters he was .31 seconds ahead of the pace of the eventual gold medalist, Nikolai Gouliaev. Then, on the fourth turn, he caught the tip of his blade on the ice and tumbled into the pads again. Jansen later recalled never having done that in a race. He hadn't even fallen in practice in the previous six months.

Immediately after the race, Jansen flew home for his sister's funeral, which was held two days later. He returned to Calgary later in the week to watch his fiancee, a Canadian speed skater, finish 11th in her race.

Tomorrow: Six years later, Jansen gets his gold

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