On a dark interstate on a frigid January night last winter, somewhere between Lake Placid, N.Y., and Wayne, N.J., bobsledder Jazmine Fenlator decided it might be time to walk away from the sport she had dedicated her life to for nearly four years. Her mom, Suzie, who had been battling lupus, was in a hospital about to undergo emergency triple-bypass surgery, and the 26-year-old Fenlator, a member of the U.S. women's bobsled team, had made the decision to forgo qualifying for the America's Cup race in order to be with her.
"My family needed me," she said. "If I had been selfish, I never would have been able to live with myself."
Her mother had other ideas. "She started crying when she saw me the next morning," Fenlator recalled. "The first thing she said was, 'Why are you here? You're not going to qualify for your race!'" Fenlator was determined to put her family first, but Suzie was even more adamant. So after spending a few days dealing with the logistics of her mother's surgery and making sure her 17-year-old sister, Angelica, was cared for, Fenlator drove back to Lake Placid, got two training runs in, qualified for her races and won them both.
She had no idea that her mother's heart surgery was just the beginning of her family's troubles.
Slow track to sledding
Growing up, Fenlator's only interest in bobsledding was watching her favorite Disney film, "Cool Runnings." "My dad's Jamaican," she said, adding that her parents divorced several years ago. "We used to repeat all the lines from the movie to each other." Participating in the sport herself never crossed her mind. Instead, she took up track and field in high school and quickly earned the attention of Division I colleges for her strength in the field events of shot put, discus and hammer throw.
Even at that age, Fenlator knew her mother's failing health meant choosing a school close to home. "My mom was getting sick a lot," she said. "Her lupus was in remission, but she was prone to illness and had trouble fighting infections because her body was weak from her previous bouts with the disease."
In the end, Fenlator chose Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., a relatively quick 90 minutes from home. She soon became a pioneer athlete for the small college -- the first student in the school's 25-year history to rank in the top 25 track and field athletes nationally. Her success opened her mind to new possibilities, like making the Olympic track and field team. But her coach had other ideas. He submitted an athletic résumé on her behalf to the USA bobsledding combine in Colorado in the spring of 2007 during her senior year and asked her to look at the website.
"My first thought was a flashback to 'Cool Runnings,'" Fenlator said. "My next thought was remembering how Vonetta Flowers became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in a winter sport in the 2002 Olympics -- and it was in bobsledding. I wanted to be an inspiration like that, to show disadvantaged kids that it's not where you come from, it's where you end up." Here was her chance.
Months after sending in her application, Fenlator hadn't heard anything. She graduated college, accepted a job with Johnson & Johnson in Stillman, N.J., and signed a lease on a new apartment. Then in August, she got an unexpected email, inviting her to the U.S. team tryouts in September. With her mother's encouragement, she dropped everything and went -- and earned her way onto the national team in a sport she'd never tried before.
The transition wasn't easy. Track and field had been cut-and-dry -- throw a certain distance or run a certain time and you'll probably win your meet. But with bobsledding, the variables were endless. "Besides the weather conditions, I was relying on another person to help push the sled and navigate," she said. "If my teammate had a hiccup, it could cost us a place in the race. And vice versa."
Her first role was as a brakeman, the team member responsible for acceleration and speed. "The first time I did it, it felt like being thrown into a tornado and just holding on and hoping you don't get spit out," she said. After two seasons of learning the ropes, she transitioned into the role of pilot.
It was just after her first race as a pilot -- where she crashed the bobsled -- that her mother was rushed to the hospital.
Despite seeing her mother through surgery, Fenlator's heartaches kept piling up. In April, Suzie suffered a stroke. Her lupus came out of remission in June. Then in August, Hurricane Irene ripped through New Jersey, destroying Suzie's new home and leaving her and Angelica homeless. "The night before our 'combine and push' championships, which start to rank you for the season, I got a call from my sister that there was four feet of water in our home and that they had been living in a hotel for a week," said Fenlator. Upset, she told them to hang tight -- she was coming home. Once again, her mother refused.
I want to be an inspiration, to show disadvantaged kids that it's not where you come from, it's where you end up.” -- Jazmine Fenlator
"She said, 'Tomorrow's event is everything you've been working for. I'll let you know when you need to come home,'" Jazmine said.
Fenlator stayed -- and gave it her all at the combine, earning a high ranking to begin the season. Then she mailed her mother all the money she could put together, even though her own tight finances meant she'd been working three part-time jobs in addition to training.
"My mom had been out of work since her heart surgery in January," Fenlator said. "She was out of savings and had maxed out on her credit cards."
Despite the challenges, Fenlator is committed to staying positive. "My mom raised me to be a fighter," she said. "She's always pushing through, and not letting defeat define her. I may be going through hard times, but I will never let a loss -- in life or on the ice -- define who I am."
So while her family rebuilds their home, thanks in part to a relief fund started by Fenlator's teammates, Fenlator was in Austria in early December for the World Cup, where she and Ingrid Marcum teamed to finish 11th. Next she has the world championships in Lake Placid in February. But her real sights are set on the 2014 Olympics, where Fenlator is determined to give the U.S. a podium spot.
Between now and then, it's back straight and chin up -- and fingers crossed that this year's bad breaks have earned her a reprieve for several years to come.
"I've learned there are certain things you can control and a humongous list of things you can't," she said. "There's no point focusing on the stuff you can't control; you can only focus on how to react to it."
So far, the money's on Fenlator.