By Thomas Albano
From five family deaths early in her bobsled career, to her parents’ divorce, to media criticism at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Jazmine Fenlator, ’07, has had to rise up against many struggles.
Fenlator spoke in the Bart Luedeke Center (BLC) Theater on March 12 as the keynote speaker of the 33rd Gender and Sexuality Studies (GSS) Colloquium and a sesquicentennial medal recipient about overcoming these obstacles.
“Why do we feel it’s necessary to classify every detail of everything?”
Fenlator asked. “In most cases, classification suits well for practical purposes. But, on the contrary, classification creates social separation, dividing of communities, hierarchy, a minority versus a majority and so on.”
When Fenlator was 5, her parents signed her up for dance classes and she proved to be talented, going on to audition for The Lion King on Broadway and a Spike Lee film, as well as participating in national competitions.
But the two-time Rider Athlete of the Year faced discrimination even when she was young, for her gender, for being biracial and for having a different, muscular build than others her age.
“‘You’re just not the look we’re looking for.’ Or ‘You’re really talented, if not one of the best, but we just don’t know if this is going to work out.’ ‘You’re too exotic looking.’ At ages 5 to 10, how does one take that in?” Fenlator asked.
In high school, she competed in gymnastics and both indoor and outdoor track. Her goal was to get academic and athletic scholarships and pursue an Olympic career.
Fenlator broke school and county records and was one of the top throwers in the nation. Yet, the now 29-year-old said when she was recruited by colleges, she was told that schools were just filling a quota for the number of minority and female athletes. Fenlator harnessed the pain of being told she “couldn’t” as motivation, eventually getting scholarships from Rider.
“What better way to keep pushing forward than people saying you’re not good enough?” Fenlator said.
Her dream of competing in the Olympics came to fruition when then-Rider track and field Head Coach Robert Pasquariello came to her with an opportunity, but as a bobsledder. She arrived at a rookie bobsled camp but said she still had to deal with skeptics, who doubted a young black woman from New Jersey who never competed in the sport could make the transition to bobsledding — a sport dominated by white males.
Fenlator made the Olympic team for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. With five out of the six members considered minorities, the team was dubbed “the wolf pack.”
“A wolf pack has all these different characters and personalities, but together as one they lead each other; they stay together and they are fierce competitors,” Fenaltor said.
The press at the Olympics “went crazy” and asked her and her teammates if they really had a chance to win or just simply make their mark on the sport. She admitted the pressure had gotten to her.
“It becomes a lot when you’re trying to flush out everything, kind of being in a bubble to get yourself ready to compete, when you have a lot of people bringing up controversial issues that you may not have an opinion on, but if you don’t say anything it also makes an opinion for you,” Fenlator said.
The Rider alumna said she fell into a depression after the Olympics, wondering to herself if her journey to Sochi was worth it and thinking that her critics might be right.
However, she realized she had accomplished her dreams despite all the negativity, labels and discrimination that she faced.
“When I look in the mirror, what is it that I see? I’m Jazmine Fenlator,” she said. “I’m just me trying to be the best me that I can be, working for a better me every day through the barriers life projects at you in a moment’s notice. When you look in the mirror, what do you see? What are you, who are you, what do you want to be? Do you define yourself, or allow the classifications of society to do it for you?”