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Mike Downey

Not All the Breaks Are of the Heart

February 19, 1988

CALGARY, Canada — The unluckiest boy in the world probably has no shoes, much less skates. Or, by now most of us are familiar with the old homily in which someone feels sorry for himself because he has no shoes, until he meets a man who has no feet.

Dan Jansen is not the unluckiest boy in the world. He has spanned the globe, even though he is not yet 23 years old. He has represented his country in two Winter Olympics. He has a large family that loves him, and a lovely Canadian woman who wants to marry him, and most of the basic human essentials, like a sound mind, a sound body, a few bucks in the bank, and a brand of freedom that the two Soviets and one East German who won Olympic medals in his event Thursday--medals that could have been his--might not ever have.

The temptation to at least nominate Dan Jansen for unluckiest boy in the world, even so, cannot help but cross one's mind after witnessing what happened to him over the course of five calamitous days in Calgary. It was an awful thing to see, like watching someone kick a puppy. It made you wince. It made you angry. If it made your eyes wet, you were not alone.

His brother and sister, cheering him on in the 1,000-meter speed skating race from the balcony of the Olympic Oval, clutched their foreheads and nearly doubled over in anguish. His fiancee cupped her palms across her face. A teammate leaned his head against a rail. When they saw Dan fall, saw him sprawl across the ice and slam into the side banks like an out-of-control race car, they could hardly believe their eyes. How unlucky could one guy be?

Erik Henriksen, Jansen's friend and the U.S. team captain, had no idea what else to do or say, except for one thing. He made up his mind that the ABC camera operators who hurried in the fallen skater's direction, to record this moment for the viewing audience back home and for posterity's sake, were being unkind to him. Ghoulish, even.

Up, close and personal, someone suggested.

"Up, close and obtrusive, you mean," Henriksen said.

The saddest story of the XV Winter Olympics has unearthed considerable emotion in many of those who have followed it, so someday Henriksen might forgive the TV people for following it so urgently to the bitter end. This one might not have been a baby girl helplessly trapped down a Texas well, or an escaped hostage fleeing from captivity in a Lebanon cell, but it was authentic human drama, undeniably suspenseful, undeniably moving.

Dan Jansen had put the worst behind him, we thought. His sister, Jane, had died of leukemia, on the same day he would fall and be eliminated from an Olympic 500-meter race in which he was favored. In this very race, four years before, he had missed out on an Olympic bronze medal by 16/100ths of a second. He had gone from sad to bad to worse.

All right. Things happen. We know that. Dan Jansen knows that. Why his sister had to die at 27 years of age, God knows. Why she had to die on that particular morning, who can say? Why he could not win--or even finish--the race that he had dedicated to her, mere hours before her death, no one knows for sure, and no one ever will.

Surely, though, that should have been enough. That should have been sufficient misery for one person, for one day, for one week, even for one lifetime, let's go so far as to say.

Misfortune does not necessarily play favorites. Other U.S. athletes were every bit as unlucky as Dan Jansen was Thursday, for example. Pam Fletcher was raring to go, up there in the distant mountains, in the downhill skiing competition, when fate decided to snap a bone in her leg. Eric Flaim, Jansen's own teammate, and incidentally the most well-named human being ever to visit the city of Calgary, had a bronze medal all but around his neck, until he tripped over his own feet with the finish line in sight.

They were unlucky.

This Jansen boy, though, practically rewrote the definition of the word. If he had merely skated decently in the 1,000-meter race, placed 8th or 10th, perhaps, we would have said something like: "Good. Good for him." If he had somehow managed to place third, to be able to rise onto a pedestal at the review stand, to be able to take home a medal when he jet-planed back to Wisconsin to be at his sister's grave, we would have said: "What a touching moment."

But, to have him streaking heroically around the room, in an aerodynamic silver-and-salmon costume that made him resemble Spiderman, with admirers from nations all over the world shouting their support, and to have his official clocking more than halfway into the race be quick enough that he might have been on his way to a gold or silver medal, maybe even an Olympic record, well, that was some set-up.

And then, to have him lose his footing, lose his medal, lose even his chances of finishing on his own two feet, that was more than just a fall. That was unspeakably cruel.

He put his head on his teammate's shoulder.

"What were my splits?" Jansen asked, referring to his official times after 200 and 600 meters.

Henriksen told him exactly what they were.

"They were beautiful," he said.

And before long, Natalie Grenier, the speed skater to whom he is engaged, wrapped her arms around his neck, and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. Dan Jansen did not have a medal around his neck, but he did have her. He had someone who wanted to hold him tight, someone to say everything is OK, someone to tell him he's still the best, no matter where or how he finished at the Olympics.

That's why he's a lucky guy.

Because she's not the only one who thinks so.

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