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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Olympic Inspiration

The Winter Olympics start tomorrow, and you can bet I'll be tuned in. I enjoy the competition and all, but I am a huge sucker for the human interest stories that always come to the surface. One I remember very well was the story of speed skater Dan Jansen. During the 1988 games, Jansen was set to compete in two events, and favored to win the gold medals in each. The morning of his first race, he received a phone call from home that his sister Jane, who had inspired him to get into speed skating when he was a boy, had died from leukemia. Later that evening, Jansen, with the heaviest of hearts, showed up and competed in the 500 meter race. Unfortunately, he fell and failed to qualify for a medal. I remember how much I was pulling for him that night. The look on his face was one I'll never forget. You see so many Olympians overwhelmed with emotion when bad things happen. But his heartache went far deeper.

A couple days later, Jansen returned to the track for the 1,000 meters. Again, he fell. He left the 1988 games with no medals. Heck, he wasn't even able to complete a race. Jansen had just won the World Championships in his races just the week before. He was peaking at just the right time.

Olympic athletes dedicate years and years of training, travel, injuries, triumph and disappointment in an endless pursuit of excellence they hope will lead to an Olympic gold medal. The only reason Jansen stayed at the Games to compete was to honor his sister's memory. His head and heart weren't in it. I remember how unified people were, from all over the world, in hopes he would win a gold medal for his sister.

Four years later, in Albertville, France, Jansen returned as the reigning world champion. Again, he was favored to win his races, but again, he left with no medals. Pressure sure is a crazy thing. 

In his final Olympics, in 1994 in Norway, Jansen would have one more chance at the prize. His first race was in the 500 meters. He held the world record, but finished in eighth place. He had only one race left in his Olympic career which started in 1984. It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that it just wasn't meant to be for Jansen. He was admired by everyone for his tenacity, and pitied for the results. But in his final Olympic race, Jansen not only won the gold medal, but set a world record. Fittingly, Jansen dedicated his gold medal to his sister, Jane, who died six years earlier.

I love stories of people overcoming adversity to reach, and even surpass their goals with perseverance and tenacity. In some cases, like Jansen, winning a gold medal took on a whole new significance due to the tragic death of his sister. It would be hard to imagine the triumph would have been as sweet had it not been for the difficulties he had to endure, and the beauty of honoring the one who inspired him. Sometimes, the crowning moment isn't in getting a medal, but by overcoming the obstacles which made the goal an improbable dream.

I get inspired by such stories. I can't wait to see what unfolds over the next two weeks in Vancouver.

Do you have memories from the Olympics that have inspired you? Please share them.