If it doesn’t work out in Sochi, maybe she can try the pits at Talladega or Daytona next summer.
Those were some of the thoughts people had after listening to and meeting Olympic bobsled hopeful Jazmine Fenlator this week in New York, as she was one of the elite athletes brought in for the “100 days To Sochi” kickoff event in Times Square.
While many of the Olympic hopefuls range from far away (speed skater J.R. Celski from Salt Lake City, figure skater Evan Lysacek from Los Angeles, skier Lindsey Vonn from Colorado), Fenlator was the rarest of the rare—an African-American woman in bobsled from New Jersey? While the state has produced its share of summer Olympians (wrestler Jordan Burroughs, soccer star Christie Rampone), those who have plied their trade during the winter are relatively few and far between…save for maybe figure skater Tara Lipinski or if you count Devils star Marty Brodeur.
Still, the Wayne, N.J. native felt right at home in the Crossroads of the World, taking pictures and signing autographs with several thousand people on Tuesday.
“I love New York, and I have spent most of my life in New Jersey so being here is great now, because I won’t have much time to come back between now and the Games,” said Fenlator, who starred in track at Rider University near Princeton. “It is not the path that I thought I could take to the Olympics, but it is certainly a thrill and I’m hopeful it all will work out.”
The biggest hurdle for Fenlator and her teammates took place this past weekend, when she was officially named as a driver for the 2013-14 U.S Women's Bobsled National Team. It was the latest step in a unique journey that saw her first entertain the idea of bobsled in 2007 and saw her rise through the ranks, ultimately qualifying for the World Championships in Lake Placid in 2012.
Along the way, she has encountered all sorts of fits and starts, from the unexpected illness of her mother to the devastation of Hurricane Irene, which flooded out her family’s home while she was away training in Lake Placid. Then there is the rather unglamorous life of a sled driver—part daredevil, part teammate, part NASCAR mechanic and shipping clerk.
The life of American bobsled is not a glamorous one—the driver is responsible for a great deal of the care and maintenance of the sled on her own, and she has to help bear the costs of shipping the sleek machine around the world to various competitions, a choice which sometimes comes down to budget.
“When we competed in Europe, we could send the sled by boat which is cheaper and longer or we would send by air, which cost several thousand dollars,” Fenlator said. “We could either save the money or risk the time not training, and that is a tough choice to make.”
By making the national team, the financial burden on Fenlator and her teammates should become somewhat less. A host of sponsors have engaged with athletes to help them raise their level of training and exposure, and one of them for the rookie Olympian is Liberty Mutual Insurance, also a first-time elite Olympic supporter. It came as somewhat ironic that Fenlator, whose family has been engaged in the rigors of rebuilding with the help of insurance from their massive losses of a few years ago, now has Liberty on her team helping her realize her dream.
The irony wasn’t lost on Liberty as its reps went through the process of identifying their athletes for Sochi, with Fenlator having one of their best stories.
“Liberty Mutual Insurance believes that every setback presents an opportunity to come back and 'rise,' said Paul Alexander, chief communications officer of Liberty Mutual Insurance, in a statement. “Jazmine and each of our 13 Team Liberty Mutual athletes have faced challenges on their Olympic journeys, but thanks to the help of friends, family and others, have been able to come back from these setbacks and rise to the ultimate challenge—competing against the world's best—in Sochi. Just like the support groups for these athletes, Liberty Mutual is in the business of helping people come back and rise from the setbacks in their own lives.”
As far as the new challenges that lie ahead, Fenlator won’t have to worry about the bright lights finding her sled once the Games begin, as she will be teamed with one of the USA’s most mercurial athletes of recent times, former track and field star turned bobsledder Lolo Jones. Jones, Fenlator added, will be a huge plus to have on her side (or actually behind her) when the pressure is on in Sochi.
“Lolo has taught me a lot about handling the stresses, challenges and obligations of becoming high profile within the sports world. Also how to handle high pressure situations and maximize the skill and athleticism on big race days. That is what we will need to handle most when we are on the track, and I think her past Olympic experience will play in our favor,” said Fenlator.
While there are still some final hurdles to clear for Team USA before arriving in Sochi, it looks like the bobsled story, from one of diversity and athleticism, could be one of the best to watch as fans turn their thoughts toward Russia in February and a new set of Olympic heroes emerge for the U.S.
For now though, the former track star is continuing to polish and refine her sled, making sure all the runners are set and the brakes ready, just like any good driver should, be it in bobsled or NASCAR. Could a Danica Patrick-like change come for Fenlator later on? Unlikely.
“My plan is to finish my second masters (MBA), use my platform to inspire and motivate as well as check off some cool things on my bucket list,” she added. “At the top of the list is to have my family be stable with a home and finances as well as spend a year to travel the world as a photo journalist and make a coffee table book of those experiences bring 'life’s simple pleasures' to people’s homes!”
Driven is a good way to describe Jazmine Fenlator, both in her sled and in life, and certainly a name to remember. Maybe NASCAR should come calling.
Jerry Milani is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first-hand unless noted.