The 2010 Vancouver Olympics are the fourth Winter Games for American long track speedskater Jennifer Rodriguez. She stopped skating after the 2006 Turin Olympics, but returned to competition in 2008 when she realized her speedskating career was unfinished. Rodriguez' path back to the Olympics has been marked by heartbreak, tragedy and joy.
Three-time Olympian Jennifer Rodriguez hung up her skates four years ago after failing to win a medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics, where she was considered a strong contender for a podium finish in three individual events. She says she did not enjoy her experience in Turin, "not one bit."
In 2008, the Miami native skated for the first time since Turin, and a short time later decided to mount a comeback for the 2010 Olympics. But this time around, things would be different. "Definitely, I'm having a lot more fun with skating. I'm really enjoying myself. I love my team. I look forward to going to practice everyday, whereas before ... you go to practice because you have to," she said.
Rodriguez only recently has been able to talk about the renewed fun and enjoyment she gets from skating and training for the Olympics. In the space of a year after her decision to come back, she struggled with the crushing pain and grief of a divorce, near financial ruin, and worst of all, her mother's death last June.
The divorce came first. Jennifer and her husband, fellow Olympic speedskater K.C. Boutiette, lived in Miami and owned a bicycle shop. They had met years before while in-line skating. Jennifer was a former (1993) world champion, and K.C. eventually convinced her to switch to speedskating. The couple married in 2002.
In early 2008, Boutiette one day asked Jennifer to help him work with children at a Miami skating club. She agreed even though she had not been on skates for two years. Once on the ice, Rodriguez says she was instantly in tears realizing she had stopped skating too soon.
Within a few months she moved to Park City, Utah, where the U.S. National Speedskating Team trains year round. Her divorce became final later that year. After an initial adjustment period, Jennifer says she and K.C. became good friends, and their fellow skaters accepted the new relationship. "All my teammates, even those that knew us as a couple, they are all still friends with me and they are all still friends with K.C. And I would never expect them to not be friends with him. It's just the way it is, it is just a situation that happens, and unfortunately that's life, but we're making it work," she said.
The move to Utah left Rodriguez financially strapped. With most of her personal savings invested in the Miami bike shop, and no major sponsor, she was virtually penniless. The small monthly stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee and the speedskating team did not begin to cover her living and training expenses. Rodriguez says this is a common problem of speedskaters and other Olympic athletes, who only get the public's attention every four years. "It's not that we train once every four years. We train every single day, for four years, or eight years or 12 years or whatever, and so we need the support for all that time in-between," she said.
Jennifer managed to keep training through her divorce and financial troubles. She now has a sponsor, which has given her the luxury of training without having to work. But in June 2009, Rodriguez nearly ended her quest for a fourth Olympics when her mother, Barbara, died of breast cancer after a 16-year battle. She was 59-years-old, just one month shy of her 60th birthday.
Rodriguez was devastated, but once again found the inner strength to continue training for Vancouver, knowing it was what her mother would have wanted. Barbara had been Jennifer's biggest fan, traveling to Nagano, Salt Lake City and Turin during breaks in cancer treatments to see her daughter compete in the Olympics.
Her mother was there to see Jennifer make Olympic history in 1998 in Nagano when she became the first Cuban-American to compete in a Winter Olympics.
Jennifer again made history in 2002 when she won two bronze medals in Salt Lake City, which made her the first Latina to win a medal at a Winter Games. Barbara also was in Turin in 2006 when Jennifer went home empty-handed and exhausted after over-training for the Games.
Rodriguez qualified for four events in Vancouver - the 500, 1,000, and 1,500 meters, and the team pursuit. It will be her first Olympics without her mother there to cheer her on. Jennifer says she wears her mom's wedding ring on a chain around her neck.
At 33 years old, Rodriguez says coming back to a sport like speedskating after a two-year break is very difficult and physically demanding. She says she has to pay attention and listen to her body now that she is in her 30's. "When I was younger, I didn't listen, I just did. And I just went harder and harder and harder, and I did more and more and more. And it was no big deal because I could always recover. Now, when I start finding myself being really tired and broken down, I have to take a step back, which is hard for me because I am really stubborn," she said.
Her hard work has paid off. "I can do things this year that I wasn't able to do last year just because lack of strength. So it's kind of fun to get the feeling back and be like, oh yah, remember kind of how this feels like," she said.
In the four years since the Turin Olympics, Jennifer Rodriguez has won and lost, grown and cried, and finally found what makes her happy. The Vancouver Games will be her last as a competitor, and she intends to end her 16-year Olympic career on a high note of her own choice, motivated by something that has nothing to do with winning medals.