This Day In History: February 14

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On February 14, 1988, U.S. speed skater Dan Jansen, a favorite to win the gold medal in the 500-meter race at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, falls during competition, only hours after learning his sister had died of cancer. Jansen suffered disappointment after disappointment in the Olympics, earning him a reputation as “the heartbreak kid,” before he finally captured an Olympic gold medal in 1994.

Daniel Erwin Jansen was born June 17, 1965, in West Allis, Wisconsin. He put on his first pair of skates at age four and soon was excelling at competitive speed skating. At his first Olympics, in 1984 in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, he finished 16th in the 500 meters but came within a fraction of a second of taking home the bronze medal in the 1000 meters.

Four years later, at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Canada, Jansen, who had won the World Sprint Championship a week earlier, was a gold-medal favorite in the 500 meters. However, on February 14, the day of the race, he learned that his 27-year-old sister Jane, who had been instrumental in his speed skating career, had died of leukemia. Jansen’s family encouraged him to continue with his plan to compete later that day. However, seconds into the race, Jansen slipped and fell. Several days later, he competed in the 1000-meter race and after a record-breaking start, fell again.

At the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, Jansen again went home disappointed, finishing fourth in the 500 meters and 26th in the 1000 meters. Despite his Olympic heartbreak, he remained a top competitor and was the first man to break 36 seconds in the 500 meters. In 1994, he won a second World Sprint Championship. At that year’s Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, though, Jansen finished a disappointing eighth in the 500 meters and thought his chances of ever winning an Olympic medal were over. However, on February 18, Jansen finished the 1000 meters 1:12:43, good for the gold medal and the world record. In what became a memorable Olympic moment, Jansen took a victory lap around the ice carrying his young daughter Jane, named for his late sister.

Later that year, Jansen announced his retirement from competitive speed skating. He went on to establish the Dan Jansen Foundation, which funds leukemia research and other activities, and currently works as a sports commentator and motivational speaker.