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Olympics / Sports

Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair linked forever in Olympic history, and as friends

They go back so far as friends that their families, the Jansens and Blairs, were close before they were born. They grew up practically as brother and sister, first toddlers on speed skates, then rising stars and eventually Olympic heroes.

They went out together in a blaze of Winter Games glory in 1994.

Dan and Bonnie. Bonnie and Dan.

Twenty years after the Lillehammer Games, where Bonnie Blair Cruikshank ended her incredible career with two gold medals and Dan Jansen finally triumphed over heart-crushing adversity, they remain the closest of friends, separated by geography but united by bonds that can never be broken.

Jansen, 48, a West Allis, Wis., native, lives in Mooresville, N.C. Blair, 49, lives in Delafield, Wis. They have their own families now -- Blair is married to four-time Olympian David Cruikshank and Jansen to golf professional Karen Palacios-Jansen and each has two children -- but they're always just a phone call away.

"D.J. and I have a unique relationship," Blair said. "Probably two weeks don't go by that we're not in touch with each other for one reason or another."

At a dinner in their honor at the Pettit National Ice Center on Saturday, they brought each other to tears as they recounted achievements and struggles on the ice, always framed by a mutual respect and admiration that transcended sports.

"Really, through our whole careers we did share a lot of stuff together," Blair said. "To end it that way (in Lillehammer) was special for us."

They ended it with Blair winning gold in the 500- and 1,000-meter long track races to finish with six Olympic medals (five gold) and with Jansen concluding the ultimate story of perseverance in sports with gold in the 1,000 in his final Olympic race.

"The drama is part of the story," Jansen said. "It certainly makes the story what it is, without a doubt. But the athlete, the competitor in me, would have liked to have done what Bonnie did."

Blair won two medals in Calgary in 1988 and again in Albertville in '92. Jansen was shut out at those Olympics, largely due to an unfortunate combination of tragedy, bad luck and frustrating performances.

In '88, his sister Jane lost her battle with leukemia hours before he skated in the 500, a race in which he was favored to win gold. Physically, he went to the starting line as the most dominant sprinter in the world. Mentally? Well, it was asking the impossible.

He fell in the first turn.

Days later, in the 1,000, he fell again, just past the 800-meter mark.

Four years later, Jansen finished a disappointing fourth in the 500 and 26th in the 1,000, and left Albertville with no medals.

He went into the '94 Lillehammer Games as the overwhelming favorite in the 500, having broken his own world record two weeks earlier, but a costly slip relegated him to an eighth-place finish.

Finally, there was the 1,000. Jansen would win 46 World Cup races and finish on the podium a U.S.-record 104 times, but still had not won an Olympic medal. This was his last shot.

"I knew that I was more prepared for the 1,000 than I had ever been in my life and I'd skated reasonably fast leading up," he said. "However, the hard part was that my baby, the 500, was gone. And so trying to leave that behind and get ready for this one... it was, I guess, sort of stop expecting and just go out and skate."

That he did, winning gold and setting a world record in the process. When Jansen skated his victory lap with 1-year-old daughter Jane in his arms, he unintentionally created one of the most enduring and endearing Olympic images in U.S. history.

"I mean, No. 1, I didn't even know there was a victory lap, to tell you the truth," Jansen said with a laugh. "I swear to God, I didn't know. They told me, 'You've got to go get your skates.' No idea. The fact that I don't have a medal in the 500 kills me as an athlete. But the way it happened and the story itself... would you change it? I don't know, because you can't."

Blair wanted desperately to be at the rink that day to cheer on Jansen, but she was preparing for her own 500 the next day and was training at another facility. When Jansen went to the line, however, Blair and the other U.S. speedskaters gathered around a television.

"It was just such a big excitement that filled our whole team and then it was kind of like, 'OK, now I want to go. Let's get to the rink. Let's race,'" Blair said. "It made me more excited for my races.

"His race meant a lot to not just him and his family and our team, it was really a race that touched the whole world."

Though nothing could top that moment for Jansen, he has consistently said over the years that his favorite Olympic memory was Blair winning her first gold medal in Calgary.

"My family knows what we went through at those Olympics," he said. "And when Bonnie was able to win just a couple days after us losing our sister and my falls there, it did something for me that I can't really put into words."

Jansen and Blair have remained involved in speedskating and have given back to the sport in countless ways over the years. Both will be in Sochi, Jansen as an analyst for NBC and Blair as a member of the official U.S. delegation.

The dinner in their honor Saturday raised money for a new timing system and scoreboard at the Pettit Center.

"I think tonight is more than about 20 years for Bonnie and I," Jansen said. "We were lucky enough to be a part of the beginning of the Pettit Center and we will be here as long as there is a Pettit Center and do whatever we can for it."

Several other former Olympians attended the dinner and praised Jansen and Blair not only for their athletic prowess but also for the quality of the lives they lead.

"They were role models, they were icons, they were people I wanted to emulate," said Casey FitzRandolph, who won gold in the 500 at the 2002 Winter Games.

"These two exemplify what people love about the Olympics," said three-time Olympian Mike Woods. "That is, for a couple weeks people get to see what humans can achieve."

(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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DAN JANSEN, BONNIE BLAIR


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