Lessons from Olympic Speed Skater Dan Jansen

Date: May 02, 2019


Bret Wirta and Dan Jansen pose together at the Choice Hotels Convention in Las Vegas

Recently, I had the honor of meeting one of my Olympic sports heroes, Dan Jansen. I remember the skating competition in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway for two reason, the antics of figure skater Tonya Harding and the courage of speed skater Dan Jansen.

The ‘94 Olympics reflected seismic shifts in our world. New countries emerging from the shackles of the former Soviet Union now vied under their own flags. But through all the changes, the United States’ Dan Jansen had been the constant. He had dominated world speed skating competitions for a decade, with one exception— due to family tragedy and bad luck, he’d never been able to capture an Olympic gold medal. Lillehammer would be his last chance.

Dan trained harder than ever for his signature event, the 500-meter race. He came into Lillehammer the world recordholder and favorite. But the unbelievable happened. He slipped going around the last turn. Dan lost again.

There was one last race before the closing ceremonies, the 1,000-meter. Though it wasn’t the race he’d focused on, Dan had trained for the 1,000-meter race too.

After heart-break, where do we find the courage to continue to compete in life’s arena?

Dan said that the lesson he learned in all those years of training and loss was that to be a true champion you need to stop worrying about being better than anybody else, you just need to be better than yourself.

So simple. So true.

Dan had come to Lillehammer older, but wiser and stronger than he’d ever been and when the 1,000-meter race was over, Dan was the winner. He stood on the Olympic podium, fighting back tears as the gold medal was hung on his chest.

Speed skating races are won by the slimmest of margins. But those fractions of seconds make a difference. Be better today than you were yesterday, not a seismic shift, but a speed skater’s margin of victory, and eventually you will win the gold medal that you seek, just like Dan Jansen.