As Jennifer Rodriguez stroked around the Richmond Oval on Tuesday, she knew why she was back for her fourth Olympic Games. Any doubts about her decision to return to the punishing sport of long track speedskating melted.
"I still love it," Rodriguez said. "How smooth the ice is under the blade, how quiet the blade is on the ice. It's a form of purity."
Rodriguez, Miami's one and only Winter Olympian and the first Cuban-American to win a medal at the Winter Games, will not only be racing for that elusive feeling of the perfect glide. She will also be racing for a farewell feeling of awful pain, for the chance to beat the pain and her opponents across the finish line.
At the 2010 Olympics, which commence Friday, Rodriguez is competing for two: For herself, 14 years after her improbable crossover from in-line skater to speedskater nicknamed "Miami Ice," and for her late mother, Barbara, who died June 15 at age 59 after a 16-year battle with cancer.
She and her mother inspired and pushed each other - for Rodriguez during her workout regimen, for Barbara during her chemotherapy treatments. Both went through something like torture. The agony of speedskating is similar to doing a lunge for 1,500 meters. Their mantras: "If Mom can do it, I can do it." And, "If Jen can do it, I can do it."
So it will be strange when Rodriguez looks into the bleachers and doesn't see her mother there. Barbara was watching in Nagano in 1998, after a double mastectomy, when her husband, Joe, had to give her bone marrow injections every day in Japan. She was there in Salt Lake City in 2002, when she was in remission and Rodriguez won two bronze medals. She was there in 2006, when cancer had spread to her liver, she gave herself shots in the stomach and watched Rodriguez, burned out by overtraining, finish eighth and 10th in two miserable races.
"I think about her every day, but I don't cry every day anymore, maybe because the Games are my focus," Rodriguez said. "I know she'll be along for the ride."
Rodriguez, 33, spent the last five weeks of Barbara's life at her bedside. During the last two, Barbara could not eat or tolerate pain medication. She began hallucinating.
"I can honestly say that experience did not make me a stronger person, because I have a gaping hole in my heart," said Rodriguez, a Miami Palmetto High graduate and one of three Floridians on the U.S. Olympic team. "I'd like to think it did, but what she went through is a million times tougher than anything I've gone through."
Yet in the past year, Rodriguez has been through an emotional shredder. She divorced skater KC Boutiette, who coaxed her onto the ice in 1996, when Rodriguez was a champion in-line and roller skater and a girl from Miami who hugged the boards as she took halting steps around the rink.
After the 2006 Games, Rodriguez retired from skating and poured her savings into the Elite Cycling and Fitness shop that she and Boutiette opened in Southwest Miami-Dade and she nearly went broke. She put her car, bicycle and Olympic skinsuits up for bid.
After Barbara's death, she contemplated quitting the comeback she had begun in 2008 when she moved back to Utah to train with the U.S. team.
"But I knew Mom would kill me if I didn't finish what I started," she said.
What she had started was a redemption project. She and her coaches had miscalculated her preparation for the 2006 Turin Olympics. Rodriguez, who is small by speedskating standards at 5-feet, 4 1/2 inches, 124 pounds, logged too many miles and lifted too much weight. Her legs were dead, her results disappointing.
"I had a hatred for skating at the 2006 Olympics," she said. "That was not the way to end a really good career. I wanted to end it on my own terms."
Rodriguez, aka J-Rod, the oldest athlete on her team, is not a favorite this time, but that does not eat away at her as it once would have.
"I want to race fast and have fun, because I've learned from my mom that time is short," said Rodriguez, who was encouraged in her comeback by five-time gold medalist Eric Heiden. "I'm not as competitive as I used to be but I'm competitive when I have to be."
Rodriguez used to pout if she lost at the bowling alley or on a bike ride or at practice.
"You grow up and realize what's important," she said. "It's actually kind of a relief not to be No. 1 all the time. Of course, I'm going for a medal but I'm a longer shot now."
Rodriguez will compete in the 500 meters as a warm-up, then in her specialties, the 1,000 and 1,500 meters. She will face strong competition from Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and China. Nor does the soft, sea-level ice of Vancouver favor her style; she relies on precision instead of power.
"There are a couple girls consistently at the top of the podium but 10 who could be on the podium if we put it together," she said.
Rodriguez said the comeback was harder than she expected after two years off. She doesn't recover from draining workouts as quickly as she did in her 20s.
"Regaining my strength to hold that skating position - it's not what I hoped for," she said. "I lost 10 pounds of muscle and only got half of it back."
But her state of mind is good. She broke her own American record in the 1,500 (1:54.19) in December. She's getting along with Boutiette; her father, Joe, even designs shirts for the bike shop. She's dating Phil Stratton, a firefighter from Baltimore. They first met as teenagers at roller skating competitions. Last year they reconnected on Facebook. She plans to march in Opening Ceremonies for the first time since 1998.
"She looks comfortable on the ice," said Rodriguez's coach Ryan Shimabukuro. "For a woman of her stature, she has to be technically proficient and her form is beautiful again. We fixed what got her into trouble in 2006 and now we'll see how her body responds."
Joe Rodriguez will be at the Richmond Oval, as will Rodriguez's brother and sister-in-law, Barbara's cousin and a couple close family friends.
"The gal in Turin was not Jen Rodriguez," Joe said.
When Joe looks back, he can hardly believe that the little girl who started roller skating at age 4 on Incredible Hulk skates is a four-time Olympian. By the time she was a teenager, she had won so many trophies he had to store them in a backyard shed; they blew away during Hurricane Andrew. Eight months ago, his wife was buried in Rodriguez's 1998 leather team jacket.
"She's brought a lot of pride to her community and her parents," Joe said. "This last trip will be one of remembrance and celebration."