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WINTER OLYMPICS : A HEAVY LOAD : U.S. Speed Skater Dan Jansen Carries the Burden of His Sister's Illness

February 14, 1988|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

CALGARY, Canada — Dan Jansen thinks about the most important race in his life. But not too much. Speed skating, after all, is such a simple sport, it's probably better to feel and not to think.

The problem is that Jansen is feeling too much.

He knows there is only one way to race and that is fast. He also knows there is only one way to live and that is for a very long time.

In the best of all possible worlds, Jansen, of West Allis, Wis., would be able to skate in today's 500-meter race as one of the favorites to win the gold medal, and his mind would work just the way he trained it.

"There can be no doubts in your mind . . . nothing in your mind," he said. "And that's the way I have to feel."

But since this is not the best of all possible worlds, 23-year-old Dan Jansen has some tricky ice to cover. While he is trying to win a gold medal, his older sister is seriously ill with leukemia.

Jansen's married sister Jane, 27, had two chemotherapy treatments this week in a hospital in Wisconsin. Saturday night Jansen's father, Harry, flew from Calgary back to Wisconsin, when her condition worsened.

Jansen has been trying to prepare himself for a race he's been pointing toward for four years. Now, he doesn't know quite what to think.

"Compared to something like skating a race or running a race, it really has made me realize what is important and unimportant," Jansen said. "It made me look at things a lot differently.

"It's just a race for me, when it comes down to it. Not to put it down. It's the biggest one I'll ever skate. I know that. Definitely, most people don't have to deal with it, but she doesn't want it to be a burden on me.

"I've dedicated the race to her. I really haven't gone public with that before, but in my mind I have. I'm doing it for her as well as myself."

Jane's illness was diagnosed almost a year ago, or about the same time that Jansen finally got healthy again. Jansen was third in the 500 and 1,000 at the 1987 World Cup after fighting off mononucleosis throughout the second half of the speed skating season.

The first half of the season was pretty much a disaster. He had the flu for a while but got over that. Then, even when things should have gone well, they didn't. Jansen cut his foot and damaged a tendon when he fell in his hotel room while he was dressing for an awards ceremony.

This is not what seemed to be in Jansen's future after his fourth-place finish in the 500 meters at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo as a 19-year-old. Jansen missed the bronze medal by only sixteen-hundredths of a second.

Jansen finally regained his health, and his confidence at the World Sprint Championships last month when he won three of four races. Jansen rejoiced at his return to form. But while he was getting better, Jane was getting worse and now even Nick Thometz, his close friend and teammate, wonders what effect her illness will have on him in these Olympics.

"I hope Dan can put it behind him," Thometz said. "I know it's not going to be easy for him out there, but he can do it. He's skating pretty good right now."

Jansen wasn't skating too well the last time he was here. At the World Cup in December, Jansen was disqualified in the 500 when he slid out of his lane and interfered with another skater.

This time the competition is intense. There are at least 20 skaters whose best times in the 500 are within one second of each other.

There are so many skaters who could win, picking a clear-cut favorite is impossible. Many have a chance--Soviets Igor Zhelezovsky and Sergei Fokichev, East Germany's Uwe-Jens Mey, South Korean Kai Tae-Bae, Japan's Akira Kuroiwa, Guy Thibault of Canada as well as Jansen and Thometz.

Jansen thinks his chance is as good as anyone.

"I can win if I skate my best," he said. "People can pick whoever they want and talk about whoever they want. All I know is I don't want to talk about the race constantly. It wears on my head."

Jansen wants nothing more to wear on his head other than a knit cap. He said he doesn't feel any pressure.

"I feel more excited than anything and I skate better when I'm excited," he said.

When Jansen was told that he did not look excited, he answered quickly.

"It's inside me."

It's getting pretty crowded in there. Jansen will be carrying a lot of thoughts with him when he digs the toe of his skate into the ice at the starting line today.

He wants to win, but he doesn't want to think about the race. His sister wants him to win, but she doesn't want to be a burden. He wants her to get well, but he doesn't know how to make her better.

This is one of life's curves, a big, bending arc that Jansen will try not to think about when he skates around the slick, glittering icy curve of the speed skating Oval track.

Jansen has more to worry about than winning a race.

"Right now, Jane's condition is not real good," he said. "They can't seem to get her back into remission. The main problem is the chemotherapy. It has weakened her liver. And now they're not sure the liver will make it through this round."

He balled his hands into fists so hard that his knuckles were white.

Jansen said he planned to talk with his sister before the race, but that he hadn't prepared exactly what he would say.

"She's my sister," Jansen said. "I don't need to make a speech."

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