February 17, 2002. The Utah Olympic Oval, Salt Lake City, Utah. The women’s long track speed skating 1000m final of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.
Jennifer Rodriguez takes her place at the starting line.
She’s not thinking about the gold medal she won in this event at a world cup the previous fall. She’s not thinking about her two dozen friends and family members in the stands. She’s not thinking about performing well for her country in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
She thinks nothing. She sees nothing but the ice in front of her, doesn’t notice the waving flags or the red, white and blue face paint worn by spectators in the crowd. She’s focused. She’s ready.
The gun sounds.
Rodriguez takes off. The start is always her weakest part of her race, and she knows that if she can sprint through the first few hundred meters, she’ll be okay. But in the first turn –
Rodriguez was born and raised in Miami, Florida. When she was four years old, a friend had a birthday party at a roller rink, and Rodriguez took to the sport like a fish to water. She began taking beginner classes on the weekends, which eventually led into private lessons and competitions.
Until she was 20, Rodriguez was an inline skater. She won a total of 12 world championship medals. She is the only athlete to have won world championship medals in both speed roller skating as well as artistic roller skating, which is similar to figure skating. She went to world championships five times for artistic skating and twice for speed, and was named the 1991-1992 U.S. Roller Skating Athlete of the Year.
Speed roller skating is similar to short track speed skating. While long track speed skating is a time trial, roller skating and short track involve packs of skaters racing at the same time. Despite her long, successful career, after 16 years, Rodriguez was burnt out.
“When I quit inlines, I was so fed up with the cattiness,” she said. “Girls are so catty, like fighting and jabbing, and it’s just like… I didn’t want to do that.”
Her inline team was introduced to the ice at a small rink in Homestead. Rodriguez was told that, if she started immediately, she had the potential to make the 1998 Olympic team. But if she wanted to skate long track, she would have to move to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to train.
“This was September of ’96, so [the Olympics were] less than a year and a half away,” she said. “So I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, whatever, my parents are never going to let me move up to Milwaukee by myself.’”
But they did. Rodriguez was suddenly competing in an Olympic sport that she could do by herself – the ultimate win-win situation, until she actually got on the ice.
“I slipped a lot. Actually it was horrible,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t think I’d be very good when I started, but I didn’t think I’d be that bad. The first two weeks I think I cried every day. I couldn’t skate!”
The blade of a speed skate is flat on the bottom; it’s not a knife blade that jabs into the ice. The flat spot is where skaters glide, and the edges are where they grip and push. Rodriguez was used to having a nice fat wheel on her inline skates.
“I couldn’t get onto the edges, so I was always slipping around,” she said. “I was like, ‘How can I not skate?! I’ve been skating my whole life!’”
“It was like slow-motion,” Rodriguez said of her slip in Salt Lake City. “I remember thinking, ‘This is it. I’m going to fall down at the Olympics in my best race.’”
But she didn’t.
“Somehow I didn’t fall,” she said. “I caught myself and I was like, ‘…Okay! F*cking go!’
“There were two weeks of misery,” Rodriguez said. “I thought I made a mistake, kept wondering ‘Why did I do this?’
“But it clicked. It took me a couple of weeks, but once it clicked, it clicked.”
Rodriguez learned how to skate on her edges and began making huge improvements. She started racing every weekend a month later and, though her times weren’t great, each week she saw herself improving by leaps and bounds and becoming a serious contender. After a year and a half of racing, Rodriguez won a spot on the Nagano 1998 Olympic team.
“At that point, all up until the Olympics, you’re kind of competing for yourself,” Rodriguez said. “When you get to the Olympics, all of a sudden you’re like, ‘It’s not just about me anymore.’ This is about representing your country.”
Before her first Olympic race, the 3000 meters, she was feeling the pressure. Her only entourage in Nagano consisted of her parents and a family friend; nobody else had been able to make it because nobody had thought she’d make the team. Even her parents had to finagle themselves tickets, and her mother, undergoing treatment for breast cancer, scheduled her chemotherapy appointments around her daughter’s Olympic appearance.
“I remember before my first race, I was petrified. Petrified,” Rodriguez said. “I remember going to bed, and I said my prayers, and I was like, ‘Please don’t let me embarrass my country, please don’t let me embarrass my country.’ I couldn’t go to sleep.”
But when she woke up in the morning, she was calm. Her legs felt good, her skating during warm-ups felt strong, and as she stepped up to the starting line, it was as if the planets aligned.
“I would’ve been happy with a top 15 finish,” she said. “I ended up skating a phenomenal race, and broke the Olympic record. I got fourth, and it was probably the best race of my whole career at that time. It made me realize, ‘Hey, I am as good as these girls, I can compete with these girls,’ and that changed my mindset that I wasn’t just there to skate. I could actually be really good.”
Before she had even set foot on the ice in Nagano, however, Rodriguez had already made history. She is the first and only winter Olympian from Miami, as well as the first and only Cuban-American Olympian.
“I think that’s pretty cool, actually,” she said. “I had no idea the kind of publicity I was getting back here. I mean, I was in Japan. It all kind of happened so fast.”
But suddenly she wasn’t just Jenny, she was “Miami Ice,” the pride of the Cuban community.
“Yes, I’m Cuban American, but look at me. I’m half Irish, half Cuban. I definitely have the Irish part,” Rodriguez said, gesturing at her light brown hair and pale complexion. “And so the people that would come up to me, especially old Cuban people, they’d be like, ‘We watched the Olympics just because of you! It was such a big deal that it was someone from Cuba!’ So you realize how much it really affected and touched people. People were so proud, and I didn’t realize that.”
She also caught the eye of a little Cuban boy in Miami named Eddy Alvarez. Dubbed “Eddy the Jet,” Alvarez was known for doing tricks while inline skating on South Beach and spent his Sunday afternoons at the ice rink skating short track.
“We had the same inline coach, Bob Manning. Jenny was like his ‘It,’ the one person out of Miami to make it on the ice, make it in the Olympics,” said Alvarez.
When Rodriguez would return to Miami, she would skate inline practices with her old coach and her new fan.
“He was a little squirt back then,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “He’s one of those extremely gifted athletes. You can throw anything at him.”
“Jenny was a huge inspiration for my career,” said Alvarez. “I wanted to be that person. Coming out of Miami, making the Olympic team, being that hometown hero.”
Rodriguez was skating against a friend off the ice and a rival on it, and she wasn’t about to let her mishap ruin everything.
“I just chased her down,” Rodriguez said. “I swung my arms the whole race I think. And my time was good, but I didn’t think it was going to be good enough to medal.”
She completed her cool down tearfully, devastated, afraid that what was potentially her only chance at an Olympic medal had been dashed. Her teammate, Christine Witty, had just broken the world record, leading to one very conflicted team coach.
“My coach, my poor coach, he was happy, obviously, for her, and then he comes over to me, and I was like, ‘This could be my last chance ever!’” Rodriguez said. “And he goes, ‘Yup.’”
Going into the Torino Olympics in 2006, Rodriguez wasn’t only a medal favorite, but a gold medal favorite. She was crowned the 2005 world sprint champion and took bronze in the women's 1500m at the 2005 World Single Distance Championships. She was also the only American woman to earn a medal in the overall World Cup standings, finishing second in the 1500m.
“Right before the season, you always go back and reflect on what you can improve on, how you can get stronger,” Rodriguez said. “And so my coach and I made a couple of changes, a couple of adjustments to my training program.” She shakes her head. “Not good. That’s not good to do in an Olympic year. Really not good to do.”
Rodriguez ended up overtraining with the new program. By the time she and her coach realized what was happening, it was too late to do anything but salvage what they could.
“It got to the point where I wasn’t sleeping, I had no motivation, I didn’t want to be there – who doesn’t want to be at the Olympics? Really, are you serious? That’s what you train your whole life for! I just didn’t even want to be there,” Rodriguez said. “I couldn’t skate more than like one lap without being exhausted.”
She finished well off the podium in each of her races and decided to quit the sport.
“I hated skating, I hated the thought of it,” she said. “For the next two years I didn’t follow any results, I didn’t know what my teammates were doing, anything. I didn’t want anything to do with it.”
With one pair of girls left to skate, Rodriguez’s time of 1:14.24 had her sitting in third place.
In the final heat was Monique Garbrecht-Enfeldt of Germany, the defending bronze medalist in this event from the previous Olympics in Nagano, who had already won a silver medal in these Olympics in the 500 meters. A heavy favorite.
Rodriguez resigned herself to a fourth place finish.
The race began. Garbrecht-Enfeldt did not skate well. She placed fifth, and Rodriguez had the bronze.
“So my crying of disappointment turned into crying of joy,” Rodriguez said, laughing.
After two years, Rodriguez began missing the sport. Living in Miami again, she decided to skate practice with a small local team that trained at Kendall Ice Arena.
“The first steps I stepped back on the ice, I literally started crying,” she said. “Because to have such a long career and such a good career, you don’t want to end it the way I ended it. I don’t care if I didn’t medal, but you want to end giving your best performance and knowing that was all you had, regardless of the results. Well, I didn’t. I gave the best I could at the time, but I knew that wasn’t the best I had.”
Making a comeback was extremely difficult after spending two years without touching the ice, but Rodriguez was determined to make it happen. She medaled in several world cups prior to the Olympic season and was getting close to her peak form, but she went into the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 without expectations.
“If I were to medal it would’ve been kind of a fluke, but really exciting,” Rodriguez said. “I had the possibility but it was kind of a far stretch.”
Though she placed fourth in the team pursuit, Rodriguez was unable to reach the podium again. But her recent personal struggles had put everything in perspective.
“My mom had just passed the summer before,” she said. “I didn’t even know if I’d keep skating. But she wouldn’t want me to quit, so I stuck with it. But your mentality changes a lot when you have a big life event like that. Everything gets put into perspective, and you’re like ‘hey, the world’s not all about sports anymore. There’s other things.’
“But I enjoyed my experience in Vancouver,” she said with a smile. “Vancouver was cool.”
Meanwhile, Alvarez had moved to California in 2008 to focus on ice speed skating, though short track was his chosen path.
“I would always do long track and short track until I was twelve, but I hated skating by myself. I absolutely hated it,” said Alvarez. “I’ve always been that racing guy that wants to be in the middle of a pack, passing and bumping and stuff like that. So short track was definitely the sport I wanted to pursue.”
Though he had the opportunity to make the 2010 Olympic team, it wasn’t in the cards for him. But, as always, he was watching Rodriguez compete.
“It was cool!” he said. “It’s an eye-opener because, for me, she went through the same thing. She didn’t have sufficient ice time, and she relied on her inline training to get her to where she is.”
Alvarez vowed to make the team for the Sochi Olympics in 2014. But then the unthinkable happened.
“I tore my patellar tendons in both knees. I had surgery March 27th, 2012 and didn’t get on the ice until mid-August,” he said. “I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t walk for a whole month. My mom had to take care of me. Most of my showers consisted of baby wipes. It was rough.”
“It would be an honor, an absolute honor,” Alvarez said. “Not only has [the Olympics] always been a dream of mine, but to represent the people of Miami and Cuban Americans? I want that on my shoulders. I want to make the people there proud.”
Rodriguez is rooting for Alvarez to follow in her footsteps.
“He’s very naturally gifted,” she said. “Hopefully, if he can stay injury free and stay healthy, hopefully he has a good opportunity, a good chance.”
A chance that could, quite possibly, be Miami’s last.
“Inline is kind of a dying sport, especially in the US, so I’m hoping that maybe we get some more [skaters], because it’s a good feeder system into the ice,” said Rodriguez. “Speed skating is a sport you can’t pick up later on in life. It’s something that you have to grow up doing, and we just kind of cheated the way. We just had to learn how to convert it over to the ice.”
“It’s incredible how limited ice time is in Miami,” said Alvarez. “I feel like the inline world has dropped immensely in popularity. It used to be huge. It’s almost like falling off the grid, and for someone from Miami, an inline skater, to make the transfer to the ice, is slim to none. I might be it!” He sounds surprised by the realization. “I might be the last guy! Damn.”
In Salt Lake City, Rodriguez had a crowd of family and friends to celebrate her medal with her before she stepped onto the podium. She would go on to win another bronze medal in the 1500m but particularly treasures her first; there was another American on the highest step, so Rodriguez got to hear the national anthem being played as the flags were raised.
“Since it was in the US, and it was post-9/11, it was just a very unique time that I think can’t be duplicated,” she said. “I think the patriotism that was seen during that time, and the whole crowd singing the national anthem, it was really cool.
“It’s something that I wish every athlete could experience in their home country, because you don’t get that very often. It’s rare.”
Almost as rare as a speed skater from Miami.
*I wrote this as my final story for my sports reporting class (CNJ523). I had originally planned to write more of a feature on speed skating in Miami, but when a story like this presents itself, you have to take advantage. This is the most fun I've ever had writing a story. Many thanks to Jen and Eddy for speaking with me!