A little more than a decade ago, Jessica Javelet was confined to an all-girls lockdown treatment facility called Excelsior. It wasn’t jail, but it was something more than rehab. Solitary confinement awaited anyone who tried to escape. Therapy was intense — certainly for Javelet, who had come unraveled in the previous few years. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, she was having nightmarish flashbacks to the sexual abuse she’d begun enduring, and hiding, at the age of 5. She was clinically depressed. A high school dropout. A self-medicating drug addict.
Now, at 29 years old, she’s a good bet to be competing at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Hers is a story about second chances.
Technically, the United States is the reigning Olympic rugby champion — though the gold-medal victory over France was in 1924, and it was rugby fifteens (15 to a side). Some 90 years later, at the 2016 Rio Games, rugby sevens will make its Olympic debut, and Javelet has emerged as a key component of the USA Women’s Eagles Sevens team that will begin its Olympic qualifying quest Dec. 4 in Dubai. Javelet is not a seasoned rugby player. She’s barely been playing a year. But she’s a natural athlete. Always has been. It was sports, really, that saved her.
The flashbacks began when she was a freshman in high school. The best friend of her mother, with whom Javelet was very close, had passed away from breast cancer, and something was triggered. Memories she’d repressed for years, the things that had happened to her when she was little, started coming back.
“I had buried (these memories) in the back of my head for so long, I didn’t even know if they were real,” Javelet said. “It was like, ‘Did this stuff really happen?’”
The molestation, which began when she was 5 and came at the hands of the teenage boy next door, went on for the better part of four years. Javelet estimates the boy was between 16 and 19 years old, and she says he told her that if she told anyone, she would be sent away from her family.
“I was 5 years old,” Javelet said. “You believe everything when you’re 5 years old. I was deathly afraid of what would happen if I said anything.”
So she didn’t. She kept the whole thing a secret. Her family wound up moving when she was in the fourth grade, and she thought that would make everything go away. She told herself if she was really good in school and stayed out of trouble, nobody would ever ask any questions. It worked for a while. She was a straight-A student. She was good in sports. But the weakening levy in her head eventually collapsed, and when her past came rushing back in, she was suddenly drowning.
“I ended up talking to this marriage therapist in training, telling her what had happened to me, and she told CPS (Child Protective Services),” Javelet recalled. “I remember the cops called my house, and my parents were so confused. They had no idea what was going on.
“When the lid came off everything,” Javelet continued, “I just didn’t know how to deal with it all. By my sophomore year, I was really falling apart. I was struggling in school. They started prescribing me all kinds of drugs, and that got out of control. It got the point where I was taking Ambien all the time just to try to forget. I didn’t even want to be present.”
The following January, Javelet tried to kill herself.
|Jessica Javelet credits the power of sport - and some helpful coaches - with saving her life.|
On July 1, 2002, the first official day that college field hockey coaches could begin calling recruits, the phone at Javelet’s house was ringing off the hook. The one — and perhaps only — saving grace from Javelet’s nightmare was that through it all, she had continued to excel in sports. The previous fall, before she was sent to Excelsior, Javelet had turned heads at a national recruiting event, but when the coaches began calling and found out about her situation, they lost interest pretty quickly. Except for Justine Sowry. Then an assistant coach at the University of Louisville, Sowry didn’t give up on Javelet.
“She was the only one to call me (at Excelsior),” Javelet said. “She said, ‘Your mom told me everything you’re going through, and I just wanted to call and see how you were doing.’ That was really cool. She didn’t have to do that. After that, she started calling me every week, and we wouldn’t even talk about field hockey. She cared about me as a person.”
Upon her release from Excelsior, Javelet took a trip to Louisville, where she met with Cardinals head coach and 1996 Olympian Pam Bustin — who in turn offered Javelet a minimal scholarship of $700, just enough to pay for her books.
“Coach said to me, ‘You’re the biggest risk I could ever take,’” Javelet said. “But that was all I needed: somebody to take a chance on me. It was such a relief that they knew my story and I didn’t have to hide anything about my past."
Javelet went on to become a star for the Cardinals. She led the nation in scoring her junior season, and she finished her career as a three-time All-American and the school record-holder for both points and goals. She was also a three-time academic All-American, a finalist for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award and the valedictorian of her 2007 class, having graduated with a 4.0 GPA in marketing.
Named to the U.S. national field hockey development team, Javelet’s first Olympic go-round didn’t end as she’d hoped. She didn’t make the final roster for the 2008 Beijing Games. She wound up playing professionally in Germany before switching sports and joining the Women’s Football Alliance, earning Co-MVP honors as a wide receiver and defensive back while winning back-to-back championships with the San Diego Surge and Chicago Force.
“That’s the thing about rugby in America,” Javelet said. “We don’t grow up playing it like they do in New Zealand or South Africa or Australia. We come from other sports. We might not have quite the fundamental background as other countries, but we’re the most athletic team. We play a kind of street ball. We run the entire game. We don’t stop. That’s where we close the gap.”
When Javelet got the call from Eagles Sevens head coach Ric Suggitt about making the move to rugby, she was settled into a field hockey coaching position at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. She thought, ‘Rugby? I've never played rugby in my life.’ Initially, Javelet tried to respectfully decline Suggitt's offer, but the coach stayed after her. He'd seen footage of her playing football. Raw and inexperienced as she was, he knew a rugby player when he saw one. He knew she could help.
"Ric wouldn’t let me get away," Javelet said. "And the more I thought about it, the harder it became to turn down a second shot at the Olympics. My first time didn’t go so well. It left a bad taste in my mouth. So I decided to go for it. You only live once, right? I packed up everything and moved to San Diego."
Thrown right into the fire, Javelet took the field for her first international competition, playing against the best female rugby players in the world, less than five weeks after her first practice — and promptly delivered 12 tries (the equivalent of a touchdown) in her first 11 games. Suggitt's instincts had been immediately validated. Javelet was a star on the rise.
"I'm very blessed to be as fast as I am," Javelet said. "Speed is something I've always had. I was just born with it. And rugby is a sport that doesn’t slow you down. If you have speed and fitness, you can thrive. Pretty early on my dad said to me, 'If there was ever a sport for you, this is it,' and he's right. I was born for this sport. I only wish I would've started earlier."
The Dec. 4 tournament in Dubai is the first on a six-stop qualifying series, the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series, which finishes with dates in Amsterdam, Brazil, London, Canada and Atlanta. Twenty points go to the winner of each tournament, on down to one point for last place. At the conclusion of the series, the top four teams based on points will have punched their ticket to Rio. Everyone else will be left scrambling for the remaining eight spots.
"That's our goal, to get one of those automatic spots," Javelet said. "We have to get it going right away. There's some great competition, and in a qualifying year you can't afford to have an off tournament. But we're ready to get it going. It's time to show the world what we can do."
However it turns out, Javelet won’t lose sight of the bigger picture. She's in this for more than a trip to the Olympics or even a gold medal. Sports changed her life. Coaches changed her life. And she wants to do the same for others. She wants to do it through coaching, mentoring, impacting lives. She wants to do it however she can, really.
"I wouldn’t be where I am without the coaches in my life," Javelet said. "So many people helped me figure out who I am and what I want from my life. I have to pay that forward."