Fenlator pilots life’s struggles and joys

Rider graduate Jazmine Fenlator, ’07, is the No. 1 pilot for the U.S. women’s bobsled team.

By David Pavlak

In August of 2011, Hurricane Irene left a path of destruction up and down the East Coast. One of the houses that was destroyed during the storm belonged to the mother of Jazmine Fenlator, ’07. They were homeless for the next 12 weeks.

Fenaltor wasn’t at the house that day. She wasn’t even in New Jersey. She was at a training facility preparing for an upcoming race for the U.S. Women’s Bobsled Team. As the No.1-ranked U.S. bobsled pilot, Fenlator couldn’t make it home to help console her family.

“Throughout my journey, I have had a lot of deaths in my family and my mom’s house has deteriorated the past few years,” Fenlator said. “I wasn’t home for any of that.”

Having to cope with such destruction at a time when emotions were already high was a daunting task for Fenlator.

“I sent money home to help my mom out, and I came home as soon as I could to help prepare things and be there for her,” Fenlator said. “When she was ill, I drove home in the middle of a race to be by her side during surgery. When she got out of surgery, she told me, ‘You better get your butt back up there because you have a race.’ There are a lot of things that definitely take a toll, but what helps an individual really get through is having a great support system.”

Now, with personal difficulties subsiding, Fenlator and her teammates have their sights set on Olympic gold as the team prepares for the 2014 Winter Games to be held in Sochi, Russia.

Beginnings

Fenlator spent her four years at Rider as a member of the track and field team with an emphasis on throwing.

As she was nearing the end of her collegiate career, it was safe to say bobsledding wasn’t on the mind of the young athlete. Instead, she had her focus set on qualifying for the London Olympics on the track and field team. Change would be in her future, however.

Robert Pasquariello, her former track and field head coach, was instrumental in helping Jazmine begin a new phase of her life.

“He knew I wanted to pursue athletics past my college career,” Fenlator said. “I always talked about going to the Olympic Games in track and trying to qualify, so he was going to help me do some workouts and a training program to try to qualify in London. Another coach asked him what I was doing and what I was up to, because I was a talented athlete, and he mentioned bobsled to him. He passed the word on to me and said, ‘Hey, maybe you should look into this.’”

Fenlator admitted she originally dismissed the idea as she was focusing on qualifying for the NCAAs and other events.

Since the day Pasquariello came into contact with Fenlator, he knew she was going to be a prized talent. Fenlator, who grew up in Wayne, N.J., attended Wayne Valley High School. Pasquariello found her there on a recruiting visit and the two have remained close.

“I knew her physical capabilities,” Pasquariello said. “When I read about the testing they do for bobsled athletes, I knew she would blow them out of the water. I thought it would be a great way to keep her juices flowing. She was a tremendous thrower at Rider and she made it to the national level. But for her to continue throwing, it probably wouldn’t have happened, just because she isn’t big enough. It has nothing to with her heart. I thought this would be a great way to keep her athletic career going and that it was something that might interest her.”

Fenlator did not show a real interest in pursuing bobsledding, but Pasquariello didn’t want to let the opportunity fall to the wayside. Without her knowledge, Pasquariello submitted her athletic résumé to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).

“She didn’t know that I had done that,” Pasquariello said. “She kind of chuckled and referenced the movie Cool Runnings, which she likes a lot. She got intrigued by it. I told her she had nothing to lose, and to go up there and that she might like it.”

Fenlator credited her time at Rider, specifically with the track and field team, as being instrumental in her success as a bobsledder.

“Track and field has a great base, whether you’re in the throwing events, jumping events or speed events such as a sprint,” Fenlator said. “A lot of the athletes on our team have a track and field background at some point in their athletic career — whether it was in college or as a high school athlete.”

Even after being away from Rider for several years, Fenlator still holds Rider records in both indoor and outdoor events — indoor shotput throw of 48’ 6.75”, indoor 20-pound weight toss of 57’ 11.75”, outdoor shotput of 48’8.25” and outdoor discus of 164’7”.

A national audience

Bobsledding doesn’t have the same national appeal or exposure that is readily available to other Olympic sports. Fenlator feels that this is a key reason the sport is not growing in popularity; however, she is optimistic that change is possible.

“It isn’t accessible,” Fenlator said. “Bobsledding isn’t basketball or volleyball or field hockey or any other sport that can be offered at a young age and offered anywhere. To help expand the exposure, we do have Universal Sports right now, which is really trying to expand other winter sports.”

Recruiting and injuries

Bobsledding doesn’t have a large pool of talent to pick from after the current stars are no longer able to compete. In order to stay competitive, the bobsled team recruits athletes from other sports.

“We are always trying to recruit,” Fenlator said. “If we see a lot of raw talent out there in other sports, we try and recruit them to come to our sport. Lolo Jones and Tianna Madison are previous summer Olympians and medalists and are on our team now. They finished with London and our coaches invited them as motivational and inspirational talkers, but also to see if they wanted to try it. They did and they excelled.”

Jones won indoor national titles in 2007, 2008 and 2009 in the 60-meter hurdles. She was also a gold medalist  at the World Indoor Championship in 2008 and 2010. Jones also currently holds the U.S. record for the 60-meter hurdles with a time of 7.72 seconds.

Similar to Jones, Elana Meyers joined the U.S. Bobsledding Team from another sport. Originally a member of the U.S. Softball Team, Meyers found success on the bobsled track after the softball program was cut from Olympic competition.

Injuries take place in bobsledding just as much as any other sport. Fenlator feels that the risks don’t outweigh the reward, though.

“There are always injuries,” Fenlator said. “Athletes all know that your time, specifically as an Olympian, is very limited. Bobsled definitely is risky. I was sliding almost 90 miles an hour in my last race at the Whistler track. In training the day before, we had about five crashes in the session just from the women’s side. Going at high speeds and the possibility of crashing creates more of a fear for outsiders, but it doesn’t put any more weight on us.”

Pasquariello admired Fenlator’s courage and ability to put aside any fear and continually push herself to become the best in whatever it is she sets her mind to.

“If you’ve ever seen the bobsled up close, it is pretty scary,” Pasquariello said. “Those girls are going really fast. Her hand-eye coordination has to be outstanding. I’ve had an opportunity to see her race in person, and I’ve seen her crash. She has bounced back from that to be the No.1 driver right now.”

The ranking is something that surprises Fenlator.

“It’s still kind of a shock,” Fenlator said. “I like to think of myself as being humble. I am probably harder on myself than any coach could be. I also know that being at the top, there are people coming for you. I know that my teammates are right there as well and we are going to push each other to be the best.”

Funding your dream

Nothing is ever easy. That includes finding the necessary money to keep your dream alive year after year. With the USOC spending a large portion of its budget on the summer Olympians, a large deficit has been created for those trying to compete in the Winter Games, according to Fenlator.

In a four-year Olympic period, Fenlator has spent roughly between $100,000 and $200,000 of her own money to keep her Olympic dreams alive.

“Right now I am in a lot of financial distress,” Fenlator said. “The funding is not as extensive as we would like, especially since bobsled is one of the most expensive Olympic sports next to equestrian.”

Because of her finish on the team earlier in the year, Fenlator has had to pay out of pocket for a portion of the season.

“After team trials, I was actually ranked the third sled on the team, which put me as self-funding the first half of the season,” Fenlator said. “That is five races: three in North America and two in Europe. For me, that’s estimated at $20,000, and that doesn’t include my everyday bills such as car insurance, student loans, cell phone and Internet. It doesn’t include my training sneakers or supplements. That is just to travel with the team.”

Fundraising has been crucial to helping keep her dream alive, but even the money coming in from different activities doesn’t come close to the final dollar amount.

“Over the past few years I have worked multiple jobs over the summer,” Fenlator said. “I would also fundraise. I was very fortunate to have a great community in Lake Placid to help support me when they found out our team wasn’t going to be able to fund all the athletes. So we had a spaghetti dinner and another local company had a bowling event. In today’s economy and in the sport of bobsled, people want return on their money. It’s very difficult when our sport isn’t popular in the United States compared to Germany or Austria — that is their sport. When you go to a race in Germany, it is packed. It is like a concert.”

Fenlator also said that she has to purchase her own equipment, which you need multiples of, which costs $6,000.

Continuing to fight

As 2014 nears, Fenlator will continue to train and compete in order to stand atop the podium as a gold medalist in the Olympic Games.

“There’s a quote that says, ‘It’s not every four years, it’s every day,’” Fenlator said. “Not many people know, but an Olympic quad is four years. We train four years to compete for that one moment on the world stage for two weeks. It’s every day — 365 days a year. I didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving this year and I didn’t celebrate last year because we are on the road training.Thanksgiving I had to work the next day, so I spent it doing a weight lifting session and going to the bobsled track and getting my runs in to qualify for the race. It is every day and the regimen is to keep your focus on the big picture. It’s a long journey. It seems like a lot of time but it goes by quickly.”

Pasquariello believes that with Fenlator’s work ethic and determination, she will be on top sooner rather than later.

“Nobody’s going to outwork Jazmine,” Pasquariello said. “Nobody is going to want it more.”

Contact this writer at pavlakd@theridernews.com

Printed in the 12-7-12 edition

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