January 13, 1992 12:00 PM

IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE BIGGEST DAY of speedskater Dan Jansen’s life, but it ended up being the worst. On Feb. 14, 1988, Jansen, then 22, was poised to compete for the gold medal in the 500-meter race at the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. But at 6 A.M. he was roused from bed by his brother Mike, calling from Wisconsin, saying their sister Jane, 27—who had been waging a yearlong battle with leukemia—was dying and wanted to say goodbye. The third youngest of nine children and a speedskater herself, Jane had urged Dan to go to Calgary despite her deteriorating health. While Mike held the phone to her ear, Dan spoke to Jane, but she was on a respirator and could not reply. Four hours later she was dead.

That evening, as American TV viewers looked on transfixed, Dan bravely toed the starting line for the 500-meter sprint. As the starter raised his gun, Dan jumped out, committing a false start—something he rarely does. Then, barely 10 seconds into the race, he fell, sliding helplessly across the ice and tripping a Japanese skater before crashing into the foam cushion that lines the rink. Four days later, still burdened with grief, he skated in the 1,000-meter race and had a record-setting pace through the first 800 meters. Then he fell again. “At the time,” remembers Dan, “I was more concerned about my sister than I was about skating. But now it’s time for me to look ahead.”

What’s ahead for Jansen, now 26, are next month’s Olympics in Albertville, France. Once more, Dan, who in November tied for first in the 500 race at a World Cup meet in Berlin, is positioned for a gold medal, with his toughest competition expected from Germany’s Uwe-Jens Mey, the 1988 Olympic champion in the 500. A 190-lb. six-footer, Jansen, according to his new coach, Peter Mueller, is neither the biggest nor the strongest skater. Nor, adds Mueller, is he any faster than some of the others. But Jansen has something extra. “He is mentally tough,” says Mueller. “He knows he’s going to win every time he goes out there.”

You might say that Dan Jansen was put on the planet to speedskate. The youngest of police lieutenant Harry and nurse Gerry Jansen’s nine kids, he grew up in West Allis, Wis., a block from the old site of the annual North American Speedskating Championships. Speedskating was a Jansen family affair. “We couldn’t afford a babysitter, so we took the little ones along as well,” says Harry, who laced Dan into a pair of double-runners at age 4.

According to Harry, Dan was initially “no better than anyone else in the family. He had real wobbly ankles and had to work very hard on them.” The hard work paid off, and by 8, Dan began winning regional and then, at 12, national meets. In 1984 he was picked for the Olympics, and he placed fourth in the 500-meter race at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. “I was 18,” he says, “and I just missed a bronze medal. I was so excited. Then I came home, and the reporters were saying, ‘That’s too bad [about finishing fourth].’ That’s when I started to feel there’s too much emphasis on medals.”

Jane, who had been married for five years to West Allis fireman Rich Beres, first learned she had cancer in January 1987, 24 hours after the birth of her third child. The doctors suggested a bone-marrow transplant. Dan and another of his sisters, Joanne, were the only ones whose bone marrow matched Jane’s, and Dan was prepared to go ahead with the procedure. But Jane, fearing it would weaken him and put him out of the Olympics, said no. Instead she accepted the gift of marrow from Joanne, who was a slightly better match.

For a time after the September procedure, Jane seemed to rally. Then in December, she reentered the hospital. Just days before the Olympics, Jane was featured in a poignant TV special in which she tearfully acknowledged her brother’s devotion. “I want to go out there and do well for her because she’s fought so hard,” Dan told one newspaper.

In the hours before the race, the ABC cameras followed Dan as he practiced grimly on the Olympic oval. Later, Harry Jansen said, “I think he was thinking about Jane. I knew he’d either fall or he’d skate the race of his life.”

That night the cameras captured Dan’s fall and followed him as he went sliding and spinning for what seemed an eternity. Then four days later, they watched him fall once again. Afterward he said, “I had no feeling for the ice, no grip at all.”

These days Dan lives in Greenfield, Wis., with his wife, Robin, a former personnel recruiter for Interstate Hotel Corp., whom he met in 1988 at a promotional event in Charlotte, N.C. Both Robin and Dan were involved at the time in long-standing relationships—Dan was engaged to Canadian skater Natalie Grenier—so things were difficult for the first six months. The split with Natalie, says Dan, who married Robin in April 1990, “was not the easiest thing I ever did. And I’d rather not talk about it.”

The couple’s immaculate three-bedroom house is within easy rollerblading of Dan’s seven siblings and 22 nephews and nieces (including Jane’s daughters, whose father remarried two years ago), which has clearly given Robin ideas. Pretty and vivacious, Robin—who has toned down her South Carolina accent “so Dan’s family can understand me”—is ready to make her own contribution to the greater Jansen family. “We’ll need to start soon after the Olympics,” she says. “If Dan still wants to compete until 1994, I’ll do my best to bring up the babies by myself.” (Robin, a twin, assumes that she and Dan will also have twins.)

Dan is quietly confident that he will win a medal in Albertville. But if he doesn’t, well, so be it. “What I learned in ’88,” he says, “is that winning the gold is not the most important thing. I’ll go into my 1992 race knowing I’ve done everything I can possibly do. Then I can be satisfied with my results whether I win or not. And I won’t,” he adds firmly, “be thinking of 1988 at all.”

WILLIAM PLUMMER

BARBARA KLEBAN MILLS in West Allis

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