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'Miami Ice' overcomes hardship for 1 more Olympics

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

For Jennifer Rodriguez, the crying finally stopped last month.

The Olympic medalist has endured so much pain over the past couple of years: the death of her mother, the end of her marriage, financial problems that left her all tapped out. For months, hardly a day went by without some sort of breakdown, the tears streaming down her face as she struggled to cope with one blow after another.

Finally, she turned a corner -- and just in time for her fourth trip to the Winter Games.

"I would be in my hotel room, crying all the time," Rodriguez said this week. "But just about a month ago, I kind of stopped that. Maybe I'm kind of going through the healing process, getting over the part where I'm crying all the time, where I'm feeling so sad all the time. That's kind of going away a little bit. It took a long time, a good six months. But I think I'm actually on the way back up. Things are starting to look bright again instead of looking so gloomy."

The 33-year-old Rodriguez was a pioneer at the speedskating rink, among that first batch of warm-weather inliners who made the switch to ice. A Cuban-American from south Florida -- hence her nickname, "Miami Ice" -- she made her first Olympic team in 1998 and won a pair of bronze medals four years later in Salt Lake City.

Her career seemed over after a disappointing performance in Turin. Just one year after winning the world sprint championship, Rodriguez trained too hard for the Olympics and had nothing left when she got to Italy. Disgusted at her performance (her best showing was eighth in the 1,500 meters), she put away her clapskates and called it a career.

Or so she thought.

In early 2008, Rodriguez's then-husband, fellow speedskater KC Boutiette, was working with some children at a skating club in Miami. He persuaded his wife to come along. As soon as she stepped on the ice, Rodriguez knew she had given up the sport too soon. Before long, she was dialing up U.S. national sprint coach Ryan Shimabukuro with news of her comeback.

"Sometimes I wish I hadn't quit, because I know I could be even better than I am now," said Rodriguez, who'll skate three individual events in Vancouver (500, 1,000 and 1,500) as well as the team pursuit. "But you really don't know. Maybe if I hadn't quit, I would have been so burned out by now that I wouldn't be skating well."

Coming back after such a long layoff is always a struggle, especially for an athlete in her 30s. But at least Rodriguez found some measure of peace at the rink -- gliding along the ice, escaping from her troubles.

A few months after Rodriguez returned, her 61/2-year marriage to Boutiette ended in divorce. It was a jarring blow, splitting from the man who was first to make the inline-to-speedskating transition back in the mid-90s and brought his future wife along for the ride. They had spent so much time working as a team, a couple in pursuit of the same dreams.

"I will always be more than appreciative, more that grateful for everything KC has done for me," Rodriguez said. "Not only did he get me involved in the sport, he was there for me every step of the way. He was the one who got me back into it again by getting to go skate with the kids. I'll always be very grateful for that."

After some awkward moments initially, the two are back on good terms. Rodriguez is in a new relationship, and it doesn't feel so weird when she runs into Boutiette at the rink.

"We are friends. It's nice," Rodriguez said. "I can be there to support him if he needs me and vice versa. We were together so long, we'll always have some sort of bond between us."

Going through a divorce and coming back to skating without benefit of major sponsorship put Rodriguez in a severe bind financially. She traded in her BMW for a VW Beetle and struggled to fend off the bill collectors.

"I had zero savings," Rodriguez said. "My credit cards were completely loaded up."

Renewed success has eased the financial burden, but nothing prepared Rodriguez for the most jarring blow of all -- the death of her mother last June.

Barbara Rodriguez had battled breast cancer for 16 years, yet still found the strength to be her daughter's staunchest fan. She was there for almost every major meet, attending the Salt Lake City Games while her disease was in remission and making it to Nagano and Turin during breaks in her chemotherapy treatments.

She passed away a month shy of her 60th birthday.

"They were best friends," Shimabukuro said. "This is going to be the first Olympics that her mother has not been at the games with her. But Jen is a lot stronger. I think she's going to be OK. There's been some times along the way where things have been tough. I know she would like to have her mother there to talk to. But this is also a more mature Jennifer than years past."

Last month, Rodriguez finished third in the 1,500 at a World Cup meet on the Olympic oval in Utah, where she won those two bronze medals in 2002. But she's realistic about her chances in Vancouver, a sea-level track that won't be nearly as fast as those high-altitude rinks where she's had more success.

"I would be happy with top-10 finishes," Rodriguez said. "Of course, a medal is what you're always shooting for. It's possible, but I think it's a long shot. I definitely have to race very, very good races for myself, then just kind of see what happens to everybody else."

Shimabukuro sounds more hopeful.

"If she's in the right state of mind, skates the best she can be, there's no doubt she's capable of coming away with some hardware in Vancouver," the coach said.

But medals aren't the primary motivation this time around.

Rodriguez wants to savor the experience at one last Olympics, knowing there won't be another comeback for 2014. She wants to feel better about her skating than she did after the disappointment of 2006, even if she doesn't finish any higher.

"I didn't enjoy Torino, not one bit," she said. "I'd really like to enjoy these games and leave this sport with a good taste in my mouth."