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Interview with Jennifer Rodriguez, Olympian skater

Winning two Bronze medals, 2002 Salt Lake City

By Armando F Sanchez
Published on LatinoLA: August 13, 2016


Interview with Jennifer Rodriguez, Olympian skater


Armando F Sanchez: What were you like when you were a child?

Jennifer Rodriguez: I started roller-skating when I was 4 years old. Before I did that I guess I was always super involved in sports. When I was a little younger, I guess around 2 or 3, I was involved in gymnastics for a short while. I loved it but I discovered roller-skating. My parents made me choose between both of them, I picked roller-skating. From all the little pictures I see of myself when I was that age I notice I am getting into things. I don't want to say I was in the hospital a lot back then but I seem to always have bumps and bruises on me. I remember having a stitch on my finger, bruises on my head and scrapes all over my body.

Back then there were glass soda bottles and as I would reach for them, they would fall and glass would chatter all around me. I would get small cuts everywhere. I seemed to have scars all over me from the trouble I got myself into. I guess I was like a little monkey moving around, I really enjoyed being outdoors. I was never one to just sit down and play video games all day. I always wanted to be outside, be active and playing with the boys. I was quite a tomboy, I was never interested in dolls. I always thought my brother's toys were a lot cooler than mine. I loved the Transformers and GI Joes, dolls just didn't do anything for me.

Back then I was also really, really shy. I cannot even explain how shy I was. It was really hard for me to talk to anyone I was not comfortable with. Now I am a lot more open, I can do interviews with no problem. Now speaking in front of people is not a problem. When I was young it would send me to tears, I would get stomach pains and get the shakes. It was a terrifying feeling for a long time. It was not until I built my self-confidence and had to do more public speaking that I overcame that problem. I always liked competing.

My brother and I were always playing games outside, climbing trees and swimming in the pool. We had a pool in our back yard and it seemed I was in there all day. Looking back I always remember doing something active and when I was not skating, I was either in the pool or doing some other physical activity. I always seemed to be getting hurt or doing something stupid. I remember once trying to throw a rock over the fence, but instead it hit the fence and bounced back and hit me on the forehead and there was blood gushing everywhere. I think back then my Mom was pregnant with my little brother and we go rushing to the hospital. I had a lot of small accidents like that, I guess overall it made me tough.

Sanchez: You apparently started to skate and competing at a very young age. Some people might say that because you were spending all your time practicing and competing that you may have never had a normal childhood and not allowed to grow like most kids do today. Do you think you missed your childhood?

Rodriguez: Well, let's ask, what is normal? What can you really call normal? I guess I did not have the typical childhood like others and sometimes I do feel like I missed out on a few things but what I have gained in the end is so much more than what I may have missed. The things I can say I have missed I perhaps could not have done anyway. I was not allowed to go to sleepover parties since I had to wake up the next morning to go to practice.

My parents always instilled these ideas in me of hard work. My parents put all their money into my skating, so if they were going to pay for it, by God I was going to see it all the way through. I was not allowed to do it half-ways, it was all the way or nothing. Thus, I became very dedicated and I learned that I had to make choices and sacrifices very early in life. I had to pick. If I had said, "no," Mom I really want to go to a sleep over party and I want to do this or do that outside skating, she would probably have said yes but most likely I would not have been skating back then nor would I have been as good as I was. So, I think yes, maybe I did miss out on a few things especially in high school.

For me it was just school and skating. School was from 7:30 am to 2:30 PM and then I would drive an hour straight to the rink, have practice for 3 or 4 hours and then drive home. By the time I got home it was 9 or 9:30 and it was time to do my homework and off to bed. That is pretty much how it was for me most of the time. Yet I really enjoyed it because the majority of my friends were skating. I had fun at practice and I had fun with my buddies. I really don't feel like I missed out on too many things. Yes, I missed a thing here and there, but the places I have been to and the things I have accomplished are a lot more meaningful. Now that I look back, if I would have gone to that sleep over party or done something else with my friends, I would have missed out on all the opportunities I have had now in my career. I have no regrets on anything.

Sanchez: How were your high school years? Did practicing interfere with your studies?

Rodriguez: It did when it came to group assignments, it was hard for me. I couldn't just go to someone's home to do group projects, my schedule would not allow it. I was very busy all the time. I skated 7 days a week and the older I got the more practices I had to go to. School started at 7:30 am and I would wake up really early to practice before school. I would then go to school and practice again after school then I would go home and start on my homework. I was not like an A student but I was able to keep my grades in the B range. Skating was pretty much my life, it was always very hard for me when we had to do group assignments. I really never had time to do group assignments, this is a part of high school I did not really like and the group assignments were kind of a nuisance. It was hard and one year during my sophomore year we had the world championships in Colorado Springs, I think they were during October. The team had a mandatory camp in Colorado and I was unable to attend school for a month. So, I had to get all my books and homework assignments before the school year started.

Some students thought it was cool that I did not have to attend classes but they did not realize that I had to do my assignments by myself and still go to practice as well. When I returned to class everyone wondered how I had gotten by being absent in class. Yet, I have to say that my school and my teachers were very supportive of my traveling and me doing sports. I have heard from some of my teammates that their teachers made it very difficult for them to be away. I have always, always had that support and I have been very lucky and fortunate to have that. I was allowed to miss school to do my training. I didn't say they liked it but they still supported me. I think I had the most fun my senior year. There was a time period where I felt somewhat burned out.

I started at such a young age I was doing two kinds of skating, inline and figure skating. Each one required different practices-and I was successful in both. Yet this meant that I had to practice everyday of the week and at times two or three times a day. So by the time I was 17 or 18 I was almost burned out and in my senior year I was in-between sports, so I was not training as much. Therefore, I was able to go out and have somewhat of a normal high school year. I got into speed skating after high school and became fully committed to that.

I had a window of time between high school and college where I did not have to dedicate all my time to practicing and I enjoyed it but I was glad to be back to being an athlete.

Sanchez: I understand you decided to attend college. How did that go for you given your schedule?

Rodriguez: Yes, that window of "open" time allowed me to go on to Florida International University and at that time I knew that I always want to be involved with sports one way or another. At that time my chosen major was physical therapy. I made to my sophomore year in college and I know when I complete my career as a professional athlete I will definitely go back to school. Yet being an elite athlete and going to college at the same time is a very difficult task I had to pick. I realize that if I dedicated all my time to sports, my grades would suffer and the same hold true the other way around. The way I looked at it was that I had a small window of opportunity during my lifetime to be a top athlete and I have the rest of my life to go to school, so I choose to put school on hold and finish up my career as an athlete.

Sanchez: I can understand how your profession as an elite world athlete is in its own version a specialized education as well. I also have come to realize that there are athletes that can attend college but they don't have to keep traveling world wide to compete. I understand that you have to sometimes live for a while where you will be competing as well. I see that you are in a very unique situation.

Rodriguez: Yes, it is part of the school of life. It is amazing because of the friends I have made oversees and the cultures I have experienced. Some of the places I have seen are just "drop dead" gorgeous and are places that I would have never gone to had I not been a skater. I have been very lucky and it is all about the choices I made. I could have chosen not to do this or not to do it full time and I would have become a physical therapist and perhaps been very happy doing that. But now I am 29 years old and I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up.

Sanchez: Hey, I am ahead of you by 20 years and I am in the same boat. I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up.

Rodriguez: Sometimes I think, how is an 18 year old kid suppose to know what they want to do the rest of their lives? Some people do know, but some get caught in a jam and then wonder why did I do this? Maybe it is a good thing to have a break in order to try to figure out who you are. For example, the person I was at 18 versus the person I am now at 29 is two completely different people. I have grown and gained so much experience. There are always issues to deal with, and the way I would have handled them back in high is different from the way I would handle them now.

Sanchez: You clearly have grown in other areas besides age and you now have many new options. You have traveled great deal in your career. Do you have a favorite city outside of the US?

Rodriguez: It's hard to say. Many places we go to for competition are actually quite small. I think the biggest city we go to is Berlin. I think my favorite country is Norway. I think it is really beautiful there and I think the people are very nice. It's a pretty unique place. My favorite place is Italy. I think Rome is one of the coolest cities I have ever been to in my life. There is so much history there, so much to see in terms of architecture or art. Plus, the food there is great. I have been to all parts of Italy and I think they are all beautiful.

Sanchez: Again, you have traveled a great deal. What have you learned from traveling around the world?

Rodriguez: When you are over seas one must remember to respect the people and their cultures. Sometimes it is quite a culture shock. I lived in the Netherlands for about a year and their culture is in many ways Westernized but, they are very straightforward. A lot of times in America we try to beat around the bush. We look to find the nice way to say things. There, they are very straightforward and it is easy to feel offended. One needs to take a step back and just remember that it is cultural and not to take it personally. Now if you are going to Asia, try not to be the stereotypical American by being loud and obnoxious. One must try to blend in and respect what is around you. It is amazing how many persons fail to do this. This is a reason Americans have such a poor reputation. Through the experiences of traveling I've also learned to have patience with my teammates. Not everyone meshes well off the bat. Even when you try to make things work it doesn't always happen. You have to take things day by day and try to make the best of a situation that may not be ideal.

Sanchez: How would you describe your normal week?

Rodriguez: My schedule changes depending if it is winter or summer time. Many people don't realize that we train the hardest during the summer months. One thinks "winter sports" so that must mean winter is busiest but that is not the case. The reason is we do not have ice year round and even if we did speed skating is such a hard sport on your body that if you were to do it year round you would trash yourself. One does need to have time off from the ice. In the summer time we are training 5, 6 or 7 hours a day. Usually it is broken up to two workouts a day. Right after waking up you have a work out then you come home, eat lunch and take a nap. Then back again to the work out, come home, eat dinner and watch television or whatever. It is pretty much the same everyday. The workouts can consist of anything from cycling, weight training, in line skating, running, or doing jumping exercises. There is an exercise we call down time, which is where we mimic speed skating movements on our shoes. I train 5 days a week and take Thursdays and Sundays off. Some of the younger guys take Sundays off and just do an easy bike ride on Thursdays.

Sanchez: I think we, the audience, understand the physical conditioning that goes into getting ready for the Olympics. What I am not fully aware of is the mental preparation that it takes to be ready. Can you give us an idea of what goes into getting ready to compete?

Rodriguez: Yes, there is a degree of mental preparation. It does not mean sitting with a sports psychologist and doing something that requires you to close your eyes and imagine yourself skating. This is not a process I take that some people say it works for them. Mental preparation can mean anything from knowing my workout is going to require maximum effort on the ice. I think and ask myself as to how I am going to race or practice and then think through my strategy of how I am going to do the laps. I think about how I am going to control my skates. Some people watch videos, we are always working on technique. My sport is largely based on technique and not necessarily how strong you are. I am kind of small built so I have to really force myself to work extra hard to improve my technique. This is always, always what I need to think about all the time. Another thing is that our entire life is based on our legs so you are always thinking about resting. This is a great deal of my preparation you need to rest your mind as well as your body. One is always thinking on how to preserve energy. Sometimes I won't even go to the grocery store because I am thinking of resting my legs. Because of this I don't do a lot of outside activities while in training.

Sanchez: It does not sound like you go out dancing every night.

Rodriguez: That is right. At the end of the day I'm so tired thus, normally I just lay down and watch television. My biggest mental preparation, especially as I am approaching race time, is that I don't focus on the outcome. I don't want to focus on what my time is going to be or what place I am going to end up. I focus on the process of how I am going to do things so that can mean working on different techniques or working on the strategy of how I am going to approach the race. I think about how I am going to approach my corners and when to relax. I think about when I am going to swing my arms and this type of thing. I constantly talk with my coach, it's important to have good communication with my coach. We are always working on getting a strategy that works best for me. It is very difficult and there is a lot of trail and error.

Sanchez: We are human and we all normally have our self doubts and moments of depression, and face mental challenges. Do you, and your peers, experience these emotions and if so, how do you deal with them?

Rodriguez: Actually I am just getting over a bout of lack of confidence. I just met with my sport psychologist just last week. Of course we all feel it. I feel it more when I am fatigued. I tend to really lose confidence in myself. I have always said it that it is so hard to gain self confidence in whatever you are doing and it is so easy to lose it. All it takes is one or two days of thinking you lost the edge and you start questioning the program, your coach and yourself. You start questioning your body and begin wondering why you are doing this.

Sanchez: You sound like a college student.

Rodriguez: It's so true. Remember we push our bodies to the limit. So think of it as if you get to the peak of a mountain and everything is great going up to the top but you happen to go over the peak and tumble down the other side and cannot recover, we call that "over training." It becomes a real hard thing to come back from. You get so tired that you can't go on any more. You are mentally drained and you have nothing left to fight off that feeling.

That has happened to me a couple of times. It can ruin seasons. So now when I come close to it I get really nervous and I start to question everything. Around September is the hardest time of the year for us. It is always a very difficult time for me and I am always very tired. I need to keep my head on straight. So what do I do to overcome that? I sit down with my coach and or sports psychologist and he pretty much tells me, "look, you have done all the training and you know you are a good skater, and you have accomplished all you need to do. What are you worried about?" He actually tells me what I already know but it is good to hear from somebody else.

I also listen to my husband who is also a skater. Sometimes I feel like I am not doing my best or not pushing myself hard enough and I need my coach to tell me to back off. That is why open communication between my coach and me is important. I won't back off unless he tells me to, so sometimes I end up digging a hole for myself. Everyone has his or her challenges and everyone has to find a way to work through it. I think we go through this a couple of times a year. The strong ones are able to forget about the past and move on. One needs to admit that one has been having problems and we need to throw that away and start fresh. It's important to start thinking positively and work forward. That is kind of what I had to do recently.

Sanchez: I begin to understand how important it is to seek help. I see that you cannot get into a thought pattern where you think you have to do everything by yourself. I see that one has to know the importance of asking for help.

Rodriguez: You can't do it on your own. One thing about confidence for me is that I need people to tell me, even when I am down and losing confidence that everything is going to be okay. Otherwise I start creating all these crazy things in my head. You can be your own worst enemy. You need someone else on the outside who can tell you everything is going be fine. That is why you talk to your coach, psychologist or perhaps just a friend. It may take a while but eventually you get out of the rut. Everyone at all levels experience this problem.

Sanchez: I guess you can look at all the medals you have won but you may still have the problem on your next turn.

Rodriguez: I had my doubts even before I had won my medals and just this year about a month before I became world champion I was having trouble with fatigue and the weekend before the World Championships I had my worst experience with self doubt in my entire life. I thought, "oh my gosh, I am not ready." How am I going to be ready or I am skating terrible, I can't even skate two laps. What am I doing? I shouldn't be here. Then I talked to my sport psychologist and he put me in my place. I then decided to just let everything go and have fun that week. Then I skated better than I had in a really long time and I ended up winning. Things can change very quickly. It is amazing the power your brain has.

Sanchez: What is the relationship between athletes? I am thinking in particular with the ones you compete against. Off the track, do you build friendships and relationships?

Rodriguez: In long track skating we are very fortunate that we don't skate against individual people. We skate against the clock. Even though you have someone else next to you it does not matter. Your placement is based on your time. Of course you want to beat the person next to you so that your time is better than theirs but there is no way for them to push you down or get in your way. There are very rare instances where that can happen. If you skate really well that day that is because you skated well. No body else was helping you. It is just you out there and so you know how much work you put into it.

I know how much work everyone else has put into it.

So if I come out second or third, I want to go over and congratulate the girl who won for having a great race, I can't hold anything against her. She beat me and she was better than me on that day. There is nothing else to it. I think that everyone really realizes that and you appreciate when someone else skates better and you wish you had done what they did. No one cheated you and there is no one to get angry at. The way athletes get along in speed skating is amazing.

Everybody from every country regardless of ranking are friends. It is really nice. I came from the sport inline where you did skate against people as an individual or in groups and it was terrible. Girls were so mean to each other and there was back-stabbing, or this or that. It was really horrible and no fun at all. Then I came over to this sport and I like it. It is nice to acknowledge your competition and they in turn acknowledge you for your performance. If you beat them they come over to you and congratulate you. Of course there is a disappointment if you don't win but being a sport is important also.

Sanchez: What inspires you to succeed day in and day out? What lessons have you learned from your world as an elite world class athlete that our readers can apply in their lives?

Rodriguez: I think that there are three things. First, I want my gold medal. But as I said before I try not to focus on my outcome. For me I am a competitor and I like that challenge. I like that feeling of being nervous before a race. I like competing. The second factor is that I am a perfectionist. Clearly you will never be perfect. You are never going to be the perfect skater nor have the perfect technique but I like that challenge. I will keep skating until I feel like my body is not going to work with me anymore or until I feel like I've done all I can do in this sport.

But until then I am still going to have that challenge and itch in my body to keep going. That is what motivates me. It is not so much winning any more. It is a great feeling but I love coming across the finish line saying "Wow, that was a great race". If I get beat, I get beat and if I don't, that is great but if I cross that finish line I think I did exactly what my coach and I talked about, that is a great feeling. I look for those days. That does happen very often where you cross the finish line and you know you could not have skated better. I really, really like that challenge.

Sanchez: Sounds like you are hooked on the challenge.

Rodriguez: I am a perfectionist and that is why I am hard on myself. This can be a positive and a negative. You have to figure out who you are and finds what works for you. Sometimes you need to talk to someone else to put you back in perspective.

Sanchez: Someone to remind you that you are still human.

Rodriguez: Recently my sport psychologist told me in a form of a joke and he said, "tonight I want you to go into your tub, fill it half way with water and then try to walk on it. If you sink then you know you are human, if not, you can say you are perfect".

Sanchez: Let your psychologist know that you actually skate on frozen water. Who have inspired you the most? I understand you husband has been one of them.

Rodriguez: I would say my parents. Like I said before they got me into the mind set that if you are going to do it, then do it all the way. They sacrificed a lot for me. They instilled their beliefs in me as well. As athletes there are people we look up to and my husband was one of those who has had a huge influence on me. He is the one who convinced me to try the ice. He has been there every step of the way. He is like my second coach. If I need a bit of extra time I know I can go to him and he'll give me truthful and honest opinions about how I am skating or what I need to do. I think that is great.

I respect Michael Jordan and -- Armstrong. Right now there is Dwayne Wade. I think all those guys are amazing because you know how much work they have put into it. One thinks of all the sacrifices and all the preparation that they did and how they did it better than anyone else. It is rare you can get all those things. You can get people who have tons of talent but won't put the hard work in. Others put in the hard work and then their heads are not there. They don't get totally focused. It is hard to find someone who has the full package. Those are the kinds of people the youth need to look up to.

Sanchez: Clearly you must overcome many challenges in order to get to the top. Do you have any advice for students who are trying to get to the top and get their college degrees?

Rodriguez: Yes, I think one issue is the choices you make as a person. The choice to train or study instead of going out to some party. The choice of the people you surround yourself with. You can choose to be around people who have the same goals and focus as you. For example, for myself I surrounded myself with a team that is very goal oriented. They are very focused. I have a coach who has the same focus as I do. I put myself with a good psychologist and good trainers. We have a very good support system and that was a choice I made. I decided to join and be part of this team. I wanted to find the best of the best.

I want to be around people I am comfortable with.

I think the same thing can go for students. You can choose who you hang around with. You can still have those crazy friends on the side but majority of time you need to make the right choices. Don't get caught in the peer pressure type where you think that if everyone one else is going out, I should to. Don't get into the idea of skipping practice or class. Thinking well, if everyone else is skipping class thus I should do it also. Sometimes you may feel like you don't want to go to class and sometimes you don't feel like doing certain things but you need to do it anyway. Sometimes you have to make the little sacrifices that will make the big differences. I think the choices you make are what is going to make the future successful or not.

I want to thank Patrick Quinn from qsports.net for arranging the interview.

About Armando F Sanchez:
Armando F Sanchez is a business consultant on global markets, speaker, writer and futurist issues. He is the CEO of Armando F Sanchez Production. He heads an international media company that produces web cast and podcast programming.
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