Go For The Gold

BY AIMEE BERG  I OCT. 30, 2013

Jazmine and Suzie Fenlator share a rare moment at home in
Wayne, N.J. in May 2013.

The Opening Ceremony in Sochi is just 100 days away. Now the intensity becomes white-hot. Distractions fall away. For bobsled athletes, all focus is on the track.

Driver Jazmine Fenlator is no exception — when she’s racing. But when she’s not, it’s hard to ignore the harrowing reports from back home in Wayne, N.J. In 2011, they were coming every few months. Her mother, Suzie, tried to shield her from the news but it didn’t work. Suzie’s heart attack required a quadruple bypass that January; she had a stroke that April; her lupus came out of remission that June; and Hurricane Irene flooded their modest home two months later. More recently, a pair of strokes this summer left Suzie, 55, blind in her right eye and partially blind in her left.

Already, Fenlator’s mother is considered to be permanently disabled and can’t work. She requires 23 pills a day to survive. Her home had been in foreclosure and, for a time, she was on food stamps.

In short, her mother is sinking — both financially and physically — just as Fenlator is ascending in bobsledding. (On Saturday, Fenlator was named to the 2013-14 national team, marking her third season on the circuit, and a crucial step toward Olympic qualifying.)

It would be easy to package the Fenlators’ story as a tragic melodrama. But the depiction would be false. Time and again, the Fenlators have found strength in weakness and strength in each other.

“I understand my mom,” Fenlator said. “I know it bothers her that she’s not able to do things or provide for her kids, even though I’m 28. But I know how much my mom sacrificed so I can be on this path. Now it’s my turn to help, because she needs some.”

* * * 

In a way, Fenlator’s childhood was idyllic.

Both parents worked, but her mother found time to can her own jam and make Italian food from scratch. In warm weather, the scent of barbecues or her father’s Caribbean cooking wafted through the neighborhood.

“Every weekend, the windows were open and music was playing outside,” Fenlator said. “Everyone was welcome here.”

In May, during a rare visit to Wayne, she drove past the house where she grew up, pointed out a fence that her father built, and said, “this whole area was full of sunflowers,” gesturing to about a third of the yard.

In kindergarten, Fenlator found her first love: dance. She excelled at many forms, but her favorite was tap. She won numerous titles but stopped competing nationally at age 12 when her mother could no longer afford it. Still, she auditioned for Spike Lee’s film “Crooklyn” and made it through six rounds of tryouts for the Broadway production of “The Lion King.”

“I did modeling, too — all kinds of craziness,” she said.

Her Jamaican father, Cosman, was a butcher who regularly took overtime shifts to provide for Jazmine and her younger sister, Angelica. Her mother was go-go-go and routinely skipped lunch breaks at her office job to pick up her daughters and keep them busy. During a trip to Florida, the girls were begging for sleep by the end of the week.

By the time her parents divorced, in 2009, Fenlator had already absorbed their ambition and pushed herself hard. In high school track, after a sub-par discus throw, for example, “I’d sit in the bleachers and watch her attack this poor field of grass, pulling out her frustrations,” her mother said. “You could see the holes on the infield.”

Yet Fenlator went on to set school records in shot put, discus and hammer throw at Rider University, a Division 1 track school in Lawrenceville, N.J. In 2007, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design. That summer, she took the advice of her college track coach and went to Lake Placid to try bobsled.

Fenlator’s Olympic ambition was clear from Day 1, said Elana Meyers who was a rookie at the same camp.

When Fenlator didn’t make the 2010 Olympic Team as a brakeman, she decided to become a driver. She watched the Vancouver Games in Lake Placid while learning to steer a sled.

Meyers returned from Vancouver with a bronze medal, and agreed to push for Fenlator in a minimally-padded practice sled to see what her friend had learned.

Suzie Fenlator's great-great grandmother's wedding ring and cross
 are all that remain after a theft post-Hurricane Irene — plus a scar
from quadruple bypass surgery in January 2011.

“From curve 12 to 20, we were upside down,” Meyers recalled.

Little did she know, Fenlator was about to get jarred even harder.

In January 2011, Fenlator was training for back-to-back North American Cup races at Lake Placid when a family friend called to say that her mother was hospitalized with a serious heart problem. After a five-hour drive, Fenlator showed up and found her mother in a glass room hooked up to monitors.

“She sees me and starts crying,” Fenlator said. “I said, ‘Mom, I was just home for Christmas. If you really missed me you could have just called.’” The nurses winced, not fully understanding their humor.

Suzie was grateful, but she felt it was more important for Jazmine to reach her goals. She insisted that Jazmine go back to the track. But Jazmine insisted on staying, and when her mother came out of quadruple bypass surgery, Jazmine told her, “Everyone says you’re good now. I’m gonna go, but I’m going to be right back, okay? So try not to cause another scene.”

Fenlator headed north, won two gold medals in two races, drove back to New Jersey, and stayed until her next race. She tried to stay longer, but again, her mother defiantly insisted that she return to the circuit.

“For her, it’s more stress if she feels like she’s taking away from her kids,” Jazmine said. “And they didn’t want her to have any stress.”

That spring, the family friend called again saying Suzie had a stroke in front of her 16-year-old daughter, Angelica. It was April 5, 2011. She would spend 10 days in the hospital and lose dexterity on her left side. Yet she tried to carry on at home.

“My mom’s not very good at asking for help,” Jazmine explained, “even if she needs it.”

That’s why Jazmine keeps an eye on their linked bank account, even from afar. “I’ll see there’s no money in the account, and I’ll just drop a couple hundred or more in there if I can. But when you’re a full-time athlete and only work a certain amount of time during the year, and not at a job where you’re paid a lot, your funds will dwindle very quickly,” she said.

When Hurricane Irene hit, Jazmine was working three jobs in Lake Placid while training and working on her first (of two) master’s degrees. One night in the dining hall at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, she saw her hometown under water on TV.

Jazmine sent a text. Suzie wrote back, “We’re okay.”

“Okay” meant that the basement was full of water, Suzie’s bedroom was about to be flooded, and the cat and dog were on the bed. She sent Angelica to stay with a friend, but Suzie remained in the waterlogged house for three days, then lived in her car until Jazmine and a cousin came up with two weeks’ worth of hotel money.

“At that time” Jazmine said, “I just paid for bobsled stuff, so my bank account was tapped out. I had nothing.”

When Jazmine made it back to Wayne, she said, the contents of the house were in a pile in the center. “You could see 27 years of my life and my mom’s entire life minimized into two rooms – and it looks like garbage. Half the furniture is drenched in mud and sludge.”

Suzie had flood insurance, but it wasn’t enough to cover costs, and she said she was denied FEMA assistance. She stretched her credit limits to make repairs, incurred at least $15,000 of debt, and hired manual laborers to do some of the work. Then, two weeks before Christmas, Suzie noticed that the jewelry she had just inherited from her parents was missing. The only piece left was a necklace that featured a cross and her great-great grandmother’s wedding ring.

She tried to sell the house. She dropped the price. She ran out of food stamps. She ran out of money to pay the mortgage. She had to choose between a roof, medicine and food.

Bobsled teammate Jesse Beckom said, “Once the hurricane hit, it was: ‘Man, how many more punches can the girl take?’

“The whole team was concerned,” Meyers said. “We’re family, and Jaz is one of us.”

So in September 2011, the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation team changed the general donation page on its website to raise money specifically for Fenlator and her family. The two-week fundraiser produced $3,670.18.

Mercifully, 2012 was slightly smoother, and the bigger news was that the two-time Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones had joined the team.

True to form, Fenlator was quick to help. “She was one of the first to believe I could be a really good bobsledder,” Jones said. “She took a lot of time to develop me — more-so than other people. I don’t know why because I wasn’t guaranteed to be good.”

Last fall, Jones and Fenlator captured a second-place finish at the world cup opener in Lake Placid.

Jazmine Fenlator and brakeman Lolo Jones finish their second run
during the national team trials on Oct. 25, 2013 in Park City, Utah.

It was Jones’ first race, and she credited the medal to Fenlator’s driving. “In the first [heat] I popped my head up because I thought we were at the finish line. I miscounted curves,” she said. “I was literally hurting her performance.”

The two became roommates and shared their struggles. Fenlator’s frustration at the time was largely financial.

Jones, a two-sport star with myriad endorsement opportunities had no idea how to create money. “I’m an economics major, not a magician,” Jones said. “But I did try to tell her what Olympic sponsors are kinda looking for, and how to put herself in a position where they would recognize her.”

By the end of last season, Fenlator was ranked 8th in the world cup standings after competing with a variety of brakemen. (U.S. coaches routinely change the composition of the women’s sleds.)

And at the U.S. selection races earlier this month, Jones and Fenlator raced together to earn individual spots on the world cup team. World cup rankings, in turn, will determine how many sleds the U.S. may send to Sochi.

If the U.S. sends a maximum of three sleds, Fenlator is likely to drive in Sochi. But it won’t be clear until January 19, when the international qualifying period ends.

Meanwhile, no one knows how Fenlator’s mother’s health will hold up. But the strength, confidence, and belief she instilled in her daughter — matched by her unconditional support and willingness to make it okay for Fenlator to focus on her dreams under any circumstances — continues to lift Fenlator even as her mother is physically deteriorating.

“I enjoy when she’s around because we have our good old laughing times,” Suzie said. “I miss her dearly. I cry when I drop her off at the airport and all the way home. But when she’s away, I know she’s on her path that she’s always meant to be on.”

So Suzie’s hopes for Sochi will never change.

“If Jazmine wins gold, she wins gold. It would be a great accomplishment,” she said. “But as a mother, I just hope she has a good time, does it safely, does her best. That’s all I ask. That’s all any mother should ask for.”

Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.