KEARNS, Utah — If Jilleanne Rookard hadn’t abruptly quit speedskating 11 months ago, she wouldn’t be on the way to her second Olympic Winter Games.
Rookard won the women’s 3,000 meters Friday on the first day of competition at the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating and became the first athlete nominated to the 2014 U.S. Olympic Long Track Speedskating Team, pending approval by the United States Olympic Committee.
The victory capped a readjustment period that began with a purposely missed flight to Europe, saw Rookard happily lose inline races to 8-year-old girls and coach a roller derby team and then took her to Norway to learn to love speedskating again.
“Last year it was my last straw,” said Rookard, who will turn 31 on Jan. 9. “I just didn’t know how I was going to carry on — physically, emotionally, mentally. Just everything kind of collapsed.”
She couldn’t finish three laps at practice and was so depressed she cried every day. “I quit halfway through the season,” Rookard said. “I was like, ‘I either take time now for me or I am never going to finish next year.’”
On the day Rookard was supposed to leave for eight weeks of competition leading up to the world championships in Sochi, Russsia, she didn’t go to the airport. Instead, she packed her car and decided to go home.Jilleanne Rookard competes in the women's 3,000-meter during the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating at the Utah Olympic Oval on Dec. 27, 2013 in Salt Lake City.
“I didn’t even tell my coaches,” Rookard said. “My coach called me, ‘Jill, where are you? Go through the fast lane at security.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m just not coming. He goes, ‘Well, this is a first!’”
Rookard was still reeling from the death of her mother on Dec. 19, 2009, soon after she qualified for her first Olympic team. Rookard placed 12th in the 3,000 in Vancouver.
She feels she never was able to rest or decompress after her mother’s death. She just skated right into the next season and the next.
When Rookard, who had lost her father at age 18, thought about going home in February, she felt a sense of peace. On the trip to Milwaukee, she would stop and take photos. She even saw a bald eagle in Wyoming.
Rookard took four months off, spending some of that time on inline or roller skates with her young niece in Michigan. She wanted to reconnect with the sport.
“I got my butt kicked by a bunch of 8-year-olds on inline skates and roller skates,” Rookard said, “but it was so much fun and it just reminded me of why I do this. No superstars inspire me. Little kids inspire me.
“I just did some fun things that had to do with skating and it got me back in the spirit of training and competing and just the right spirit of sport.”
|Jilleanne Rookard celebrates atop the podium after winning the
women's 3,000-meter during the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials
for Long Track Speedskating at the Utah Olympic Oval on
Dec. 27, 2013 in Salt Lake City.
Rookard’s comeback began when veteran coach Peter Mueller invited her to train in Norway. She and her boyfriend, fellow Olympic speedskater Trevor Marsicano, moved to Oslo in May and stayed for four months. They joined a group of people who also wanted to get away from the pressures and politics of the sport and work out their own personal issues.
“It was the best decision I could have ever made for me,” said Rookard, whose winning time Friday was 4 minutes, 9.66 seconds. “And now this year I don’t feel drained, I feel energized. I feel like I could go back and train some more and it’s a world of difference compared to last year. Now I know more than ever that that was the right choice for me.”
The reactions of other speedskaters expecting to be nominated to the Olympic team on Jan. 1, 2014 ranged from matter-of-fact to incredulous.
Jonathan Kuck dominated the men’s 5,000 with a time of 6:19:75 to be nominated to his second Olympic team.
“Yeah, sure I’m happy to qualify for the Olympics,” he said. “It’s a big deal. It wasn’t my fastest race of the season, but it’s OK for the conditions today.”
Kuck is also expected to be a top contender in the 10,000 as competition continues through Wednesday at the Utah Olympic Oval, site of the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games. He won a silver medal in team pursuit four years ago at the Vancouver Games.
“I guess it’s a lot more exciting to make your first Olympic team than the second one,” he said. “But I’ve done it once before, so hopefully I’ll be better prepared this time.”
Anna Ringsred, who placed second in the 3,000 with a time of 4:13.81, could barely contain her jubilation. “I’ve wanted to go my whole life and it’s actually going to happen!” she said. “I was so scared going into this, because there was a lot at stake. It’s my last chance and I made it! I can’t believe it.”
After Ringsred failed to make the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team, she stopped skating for about 18 months and finished her university studies. Although she began working as a chemical engineer, she said, “I decided I was so close last time, it would be a shame not to try one more time.”
She said she plans to retire after this year.
Emery Lehman was second in the 5,000 with a time of 6:25.72 while Patrick Meek was third, clocking 6:27.90. Although the U.S. has three quota spots in the event, enough skaters need to qualify in multiple events to keep the U.S. men’s team at only 10.
Lehman, who is just 17 years old, said he was so nervous that he was shaking when he got to the line. His mother gets even more nervous. He said she never watches his races in person or on television.
“She said she was going (to Sochi),” Lehman said, “but she probably won’t watch.”
Meek could barely see his own race. “About a lap-and-a-half to go, both my contacts popped out,” he said, “so the last two laps it was muscle memory. It was kind of frightening to think I’ve got about 45 seconds of effort to go and I can’t really see anything. It was kind of crazy.”
He blamed the dry conditions, but said he thinks there’s “some action that needs to be taken in the off-season” so he doesn’t lose his contacts mid-race again.
He said he got through the final laps with the help of his coach, who kept yelling to him, “'This is for the Olympic team! This is for the Olympic team!’ When you hear that, you think, ‘Hey, I can do one more lap; I can do one more corner.’ Pretty crazy though.”
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 13 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.