MOORESVILLE It was 20 years ago when Dan Jansen gave America one of its favorite Winter Olympic gold-medal moments, winning his final race at the 1994 Olympics in Norway to make up for a decade of heartbreak.
Jansen skated a slow victory lap around the track that day, cradling his 9-month-old daughter, Jane. She had been named for Jansen’s older sister, who had died of leukemia in 1988, just before another of her brother’s Olympic races.
Jansen, who has lived in Mooresville since 1999, doesn’t look terribly different than he did 20 years ago. But Jane, the baby in all those victory-lap pictures, is all grown up. She is a junior at Clemson majoring in elementary education.
“Sometimes all that feels like yesterday,” Jansen said. “But then when you think about other things that happened 20 years ago – and you look at your kids and they have turned into young adults – you realize that was really long ago.”
Jansen will again play a large role on the Olympic television broadcast this year for NBC. He will analyze the long-track speedskating events as he has for every Winter Olympics from 1998. Because speedskating is one of the events in which the U.S. is favored to win multiple medals, Jansen will likely be featured in a prominent way on many of NBC’s prime-time telecasts from Russia. The Winter Olympics begin with a few events Thursday, followed by the opening ceremony set for Friday.
Every four years, when the Winter Olympics roll around again, Jansen’s life turns up the volume. He will have 40-50 speaking engagements this year compared to the normal 15-20. It can cost up to $15,000 to hire him to speak to your group, depending on how much time you want.
People still want to hear Jansen tell his dramatic story with its happy ending – he calls the talk “Perseverance and Perspective.” He tells them about falling to the ice – twice – in Olympic races as a favorite in 1988, shortly after his sister’s death, the disappointment when he finished out of the medals again in 1992, the triumph of 1994 and the lessons he took from all of it.
But most of the time, Jansen lives a fairly quiet life in Mooresville, working in commercial real estate, playing golf with his wife (well-known golf pro Karen Palacios-Jensen) and occasionally taking his boat out on Lake Norman. He moved to the area originally because that’s where his former wife lives with their two daughters, and he wanted to be near his children as they grew up.
But after 15 years in Mooresville, he has grown to love North Carolina. Now Jane is at Clemson, and Olivia, Jansen’s younger daughter, is a senior at Hough High in Cornelius.
Jansen, 48, is originally from Wisconsin and has a signed Brett Favre jersey in his basement. But he is deeply rooted in the Charlotte area now. He still cheers for the Green Bay Packers, but the Carolina Panthers have become his second-favorite team and he has developed a love for country music and Southern barbecue.
“I wasn’t going to go anywhere else before the kids were off to college and everything,” Jansen said. “But we really enjoy it here. We love the area. It’s nice to have the long springs and falls and the short winters, and we’ve made some great friends. I don’t know what would make us move now.”
Jansen doesn’t get on skates much anymore. But he still has his gold medal in the basement, and he still owns the skates that he won that gold medal with 20 years ago in his final individual Olympic race. He also has stayed close enough to the U.S. team through analyzing various pre-Olympic events that one of America’s top speedskaters, Tucker Fredricks, comes to Mooresville for a week each summer and stays with the Jansens to vacation and work out.
This is Jansen’s ninth Winter Olympics – four as a competitor, five as a TV analyst – and he said he still loves them.
“The atmosphere is hard to beat,” he said. “Even though it’s changed over the years in terms of professionalism and sponsorship, to me it’s still the purest of sport. It’s not about money for most of the athletes. It’s not a business for most of them, whereas professional sports is all business. I just love the struggles of the athletes to get there and to represent their country.”
He also doesn’t put much stock in the reported security concerns in Sochi.
“I’m really not worried,” Jansen said. “NBC has sent us several long emails about the measures being taken, and you’ve just got to trust that. You can’t start worrying so much about it that it interferes with your daily job.”
‘He’s actually very shy’
At Clemson, Jane Jansen lives a normal student’s life as she prepares for a teaching career, with few people aware of her father’s gold medal or those pictures of the two of them from 20 years ago.
“It’s not the first thing I tell people,” she said. “I’m very proud of it. But it’s Dad’s accomplishment, not mine, so I’m not going to throw it in anybody’s face.”
Although her father makes part of his living as a public speaker, Jane said, “He’s actually very shy. We have a great relationship, and as I’ve gotten older, we’ve gotten closer. He’s always been there for me. Although I lived with my Mom, and that’s in Cornelius and 20 minutes away from his house, he was very present in my life as a child and still is.”
The Olympics provide a constant reminder to Jansen of his athletic career, but in general he no longer thinks about it that much. There is one exception, though.
“When I hear the national anthem, even now, I think about that race and winning the gold,” Jansen said. “I’m not going to put my arms up and celebrate or anything, but it still comes to mind. And it’s a really good feeling.”