RICHMOND, B.C. - Funny, how perspective works for an Olympic athlete.
Jennifer Rodriguez finished seventh in the women’s 1,000 meters Thursday afternoon, and the long track speed-skater pronounced herself “very happy.”
This would be the same Jennifer Rodriguez whose eighth-place finish in the 1,500 meters at the 2006 Winter Games left her burned up and bummed out. In fact, Rodriguez, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist in 2002, was so disillusioned with her failure to meet expectations of gold in Turin, Italy, that she quit the sport.
The retirement lasted two years. When she returned to the ice ( coaxed by her then-husband KC Boutiette, a Mount Tahoma High School product and in-line-to-ice-rink pioneer), it was with the idea of qualifying for Vancouver to compete in her third Winter Games – while savoring the entire Olympic experience for the first time.
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Rodriguez was atop the finals leaderboard Thursday after 12 of 18 races, but she figured her time of 1:18.08 would not withstand challenges from the top-ranked skaters in the world. It didn’t. After Canada’s Christine Nesbitt edged the Netherlands’ Annette Gerritsen for the gold, Rodriguez had to be content with a certificate given to a top-eight finisher in any Olympic event.
“I’m happy I was able to get the job done,” said Rodriguez, who in 2006 was happy only to leave Turin. “I came into these games hoping for a couple of top 10 finishes, and I was only a couple of hundredths off from making the top six. That would have been pretty cool.
“But for me, where I come from, I can’t really expect much more. It would have been like a dream race to be at the podium, but I knew it was a long shot for me to medal. A top-eight finish? I really am very happy.”
How to explain the difference between Rodriguez’s gracious reaction to her seventh-place performance in Vancouver, and the frustration that was visible after her best finish in Turin turned out to be eighth?
She lived a little, which is to say, she went through a lot.
The marriage to Boutiette, who persuaded Rodriguez to make the transition from in-line racing in 1996, ended after 61/2 years. Because endorsement deals expired after she quit, it became increasingly difficult to pay the bills.
Through all the ups and downs, Rodriguez had remained particularly close to her mother, Barbara. Last June, Barbara Rodriguez died after a long battle with breast cancer.
When you’ve gone through a divorce, financial stress and the death of a beloved parent, failing to win a medal in an Olympic skating event suddenly doesn’t seem like the worst thing that can happen in your world.
Rodriguez, 33, is in the last-waltz phase of her athletic career. Whatever happens in her remaining events – the 1,500 and the team pursuit – she realizes these are her last Winter Games. Unlike the grim, this-is-no-time-for-a-good-time mentality she took to Salt Lake City in 2002 and to Turin in 2006, Rodriguez is embracing the radical notion that fun and competition need not be exclusive of each other.
“I’ve watched a number of other races, which I hadn’t done the last couple of Olympics,” said Rodriguez. “I have been to the Nile House and the Oakley House (social gathering places), which I would never have done before. I went to visit my family – I never would have done that until everything was completely done. On Friday I’m having my family come to the Olympic Village, which is crazy, because I race two days later.
“I would never have done any of this, but I’m trying to keep it lighthearted, keep my attitude positive, and try to make myself enjoy it – even though it’s so easy for me to go into a room, close the door, and not talk to anybody.”
Six family members and four close friends have traveled from the south Florida to cheer on the skater nicknamed “Miami Ice.” When Rodriguez was younger, and looked at the games as a gravely important task that required tunnel vision before and between events, she would’ve kept her support group at a distance until the aftermath of her last race.
Not in Vancouver.
“If you get too focused, you get too overwhelmed and nervous and stuff,” she said. “I’m just staying loose. All day I kept telling myself: ‘It’s just another race. Don’t take it too seriously. Have fun with it.’ I keep trying to permit myself that.”
Imagine, having fun in a race – a finals race – with medals at stake. Is it possible, on this stage, to try your best without fearing the worst?
Sure it’s possible. Jennifer Rodriguez has the certificate to prove it.