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RICHMOND, British Columbia -- Jennifer Rodriguez came back from two years in retirement to gun for her fourth Olympics for many reasons: To salve personal turmoil. To erase bad memories of the Torino Games. To return to the familiar discipline and rituals and camaraderie.
|Jennifer Rodriguez narrowly missed the podium in the women's 1,000m event Thursday.|
All along, the intense, ever-candid Rodriguez, 33, has said she put in the drudge work to get here so she could have a pure Olympic experience. Results were secondary. Thursday, it was apparent that idea was somewhat easier conceived than done.
Rodriguez always wears her emotions on her skinsuit. After finishing a respectable seventh in the 1,000-meter race at the Richmond Olympic Oval -- the same event in which she won one of two bronze medals at the Salt Lake Games -- her body language was a mixture of a professional's relief and a perfectionist's discontent.
"I was too slow off the line," Rodriguez said. "Unfortunately on [slow] ice like this, it's really hard to make up for lost time at the beginning of the race. But I'm not upset. I'm not disappointed. I skated well, I had a really fast first lap. I'm happy."
A moment later, however, Rodriguez let slip that she wished her Olympics "was over already."
"We were in the locker room and I was like, 'Why do I continue to put myself through this?' " Rodriguez said. "I don't even know. But, of course it's about the experience. It's still fun to compete out there. I came into these games hoping for a couple top-10 finishes. I almost squeaked a top six, I was a couple of hundredths off. That would have been really cool."
As usual, it's tempting to tell Rodriguez to give herself a break. But that's her nature, and part of what enabled her to switch from roller to ice skates and become one of the best in the world. The coin came up tails leading up to Torino, when Rodriguez overtrained herself into exhaustion.
This time around, she's battling to stay balanced and it sounds like she's winning. Her father and new boyfriend, a Baltimore firefighter who used to compete with her in artistic roller skating years ago back in Miami, are here with other family and friends. Rodriguez is hosting them in the Athletes' Village on Friday, an interlude she never would have permitted herself in previous Olympics.
"I'm trying to keep it lighthearted, keep my attitude positive, and try to make myself enjoy it even though its so easy for me to like, go into my room and close the door and not talk to anybody," she said. "I'm trying not to let that happen because then you get too focused and too overwhelmed and nervous and stuff. Just trying to let loose."
The top three women in Thursday's race were separated by .16 of a second. Rodriguez's split was actually .01 faster than eventual gold medalist Christine Nesbitt's after the first two laps, but Nesbitt's impressive late kick -- perhaps a function of training more on this sea-level oval -- was the decider and Rodriguez finished .52 off Nesbitt's pace.
Nesbitt's winning time of 1 minute 16.56 seconds was nearly three and a half seconds slower than Canadian Cindy Klassen's world record set in Calgary in 2006 and more than two seconds slower than Rodriguez' bronze medal time in Salt Lake. Both of those cities are at altitude in drier climates and have far faster ice. Rodriguez referred to her skate Thursday as one of her best "lowland" times.
Rodriguez' top-eight finish means she will get what she called "the little Olympic certificate" of congratulations. But no matter how far she's come since her divorce to former Olympic skater KC Boutiette and the searingly painful death of her mother Barbara last year, no matter how satisfying it was to get back into world-class shape, it's hard to settle for the piece of paper as opposed to the hardware.
"Of course," she said. "I still am a competitor. I still want to be on the podium really bad, and so yes, I skated a good race, yes, I was happy with my race, but yes, I still want to be on the podium. Now I get to go chill with my family and that's what makes all this worthwhile.
"I have no regrets [about] coming back at all. A top-10 finish, top-eight finish, for me, where I've come from, I can't really expect much more. It would have been a dream race to be on the podium. I knew it was a long shot for me to medal."
Rodriguez has two more races to go before closing out her Olympic career (and yes, this time it's for real): Sunday's 1,500-meter race, where she expects another top 10 finish, and the team pursuit on the last weekend of the Games. She said she's leaving the women's side of the sport in good hands and predicted that teammate Heather Richardson would be the It Girl for the U.S. in the next Winter Games.
Richardson, 20, of High Point, N.C., was the next-closest U.S. skater, finishing ninth.
Comedian Steven Colbert, who helped rescue the U.S. speedskaters by stumping for funds on his show, "The Colbert Report," attended the men's 1,000-meter event the day before where Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick of the U.S. took gold and bronze medals, but wasn't present for the women's race.
Rodriguez said she wasn't miffed.
"The men kind of deserved that yesterday, they skated really well," she said.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.