When Dan Jansen was one of the premier speed skaters in the world, his career revolved around an event every four years. Nothing compared to the Olympics, and in his eyes, a sport probably didn't merit inclusion in the Games if its athletes didn't feel the same way.
This explains why Jansen was initially skeptical when he heard that golf was going to return as an Olympic sport in 2016. And it didn't help when a steady stream of elite golfers announced they were dropping out of the Rio event.
"I've been on record saying I'm not sure golf should be in the Games," Jansen said by phone on Tuesday. "If it's not the most important thing on your schedule, I've questioned whether it belongs."
Jansen's view began to soften last week in northern New Jersey. As a longtime ambassador for the Olympics following his gold medal win in the 1994 Lillehammer Games, the retired skater was asked by the United States Olympic Committee to address the four American golfers -- Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed, and Matt Kuchar -- slated to compete in Rio. At least from that group, Jansen detected an enthusiasm about the Olympic experience that allowed a new perspective.
"It gave me hope that maybe one day this could be the most important thing to golfers," said Jansen, an avid golfer whose wife Karen Palacios-Jansen is a top golf instructor.
In a two-hour session in which he fielded questions from the four players, Jansen elaborated on the unique dynamic of the Games, and relayed his own journey to a gold medal. Few Olympic stories are more dramatic. In his second Olympics in 1988, Jansen was favored to win a gold medal when his sister, Jane, died of leukemia on the morning of his 500-meter race. Jansen decided to race anyway, but he fell seconds into the race. Days later, in the 1,000-meter race he dedicated to his sister's memory, he fell again. In subsequent Olympics, Jansen repeatedly stumbled, before finally winning in his last Olympic race in 1994.
“He’s a legend; he’s a legend for America,” Watson said at the PGA Championship of his meeting with Jansen. “Some of the things that he battled, he talked about what he battled. Not just winning. Who cares about winning a medal. Just what he battled trying to get there, what he battled in family life and things like that. It was pretty amazing to hear his stories and how he came through it.”
That any golfer, American or otherwise, can rival the emotions that Jansen experienced more than two decades ago is difficult to imagine. But if he was once skeptical, Jansen emerged from the meeting more hopeful than ever.
"I was very pleasantly surprised by how excited they were," Jansen said. "I've heard some of the players from other countries say how great it would be to win a gold medal, and I know our guys will at least feel something they've never felt before. I can't say if it will be equal to mine, but who am I to say?"