SOCHI, Russia — It’s a challenge to pilot a bobsled, negotiating a 400-pound, two-person missile through a series of twists and hairpin turns at autobahn speeds on an iced concrete track.
It’s often a challenge to negotiate life, to steer through the unexpected obstacles, unforeseen tragedies, and roadblocks that seem to arise at warp speed.
Jazmine Fenlator has had to do both to get to the 2014 Winter Olympics. A hurricane, her mother’s failing health, and financial burdens, haven’t kept the upbeat 28-year-old from Wayne, N.J., fulfilling her dream and competing in Sochi.
She’ll pilot the USA 3 two-person sled with sometimes-controversial summer Olympics track star Lolo Jones as her brakeman when the women’s competition begins next week.
The bobsled course at the Winter Games’ Sanki Sliding Center less than a mile long with 17 banked turns, but the personal journey Fenlator endured to get there seemed like an eternity with never-ending series of curves.
Hurricane Irene severely damaged her family’s New Jersey home in 2011. Her mother, Suzie, has lupus, an incurable but treatable disorder that causes the immune system to attack parts of the body it’s supposed to protect. She suffered a heart attack that required quadruple bypass surgery and had a series of strokes that’s left her partially blind.
“I get to be in the Olympic village with my teammates, it’s sunny outside, doing a sport I love, and my mom just fights every day for her breath,” Fenlator said. “So I have to kind of put things into perspective, a bigger picture.”
Her mother’s condition has forced Fenlator to become the family’s breadwinner, a task she accomplishes by working almost any and all jobs that comes her way. She jokes that she inherited her part-Jamaican father’s work ethic.
“I’ve worked at a creperrie, freelance graphic designing, babysitting, washing floors, cleaning toilets, pretty much any type of income that comes in,” she said. “I think that having this opportunity, not only representing Team USA, but your family, your name, the people that support you, is an opportunity of a lifetime so you need to jump on every opportunity that comes your way.”
When a lack of money threatened jeopardized Fenlator’s ability make it to Sochi, she turned to crowdsourcing – fundraising over the Internet that helped raise $3,000 to help cover training, transportation, and equipment expenses that exceed $15,000.
“Jazmine is a fighter,” said Winston Watts, the Jamaica bobsled team’s pilot and a close friend of Fenlator’s. “Every time I see Jazmine, I have to give her 100 percent props for what’s she been through. She still have heart and give 100 percent into bobsledding. That’s how fiery she is. This Olympics, just look out for her – she’s going to shock the world.”
Fenlator is a ringleader on a unique track and field-infused U.S. women’s bobsled team – that features five women of color- who keeps her teammates loose and laughing.
The squad includes Fenlator, Jamie Greubel Elana, a former Cornell University track standout; Meyers a bobsled Bronze medalist from the 2010 Vancouver Games; Aja Evans, sister of Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Fred Evans; Lauryn Williams, a track star who won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics in the 4X100 relay; and Jones, a hurdler who entered the London Games in 2012 London Games and the Beijing Olympics in 2008 with Gold Medal expectations only to go home empty-handed.
This sisterhood of sled prides itself on being a cohesive unit and calls themselves the “Wolfpack.”
“We’ve developed a tight bond and a wolf pack type of mentality,” Meyers told reporters. “We all fight. We all grind it out and work hard for what we want, but at the same time we have each other’s back.”
Nicknames abound: Meyers is “E Money”, Williams is “Wildebeest,” Greubel goes by “Dragon,” Jones is “Honey Badger” and Fenlator’s handle is “JWoww.”
But the team has had to steer through some controversy centering the selection of Jones to the squad. Two bobsledders denied slots on the team complained that Jones was chosen more for her celebrity than her ability to powerfully push a sled.
Jones transitioned to bobsled with a baggage from the Summer Games and gripes from some of her U.S. track and field teammates that she was a headline-grabber who didn’t play well with others.
She said she joined the bobsled program emotionally drained from track, depressed from not meeting medal expectations, and tired from the not-always-flattering paparazzi-type media attention she received in 2008 and 2012.
That didn’t stop Fenlator from welcoming her with open arms. She told Jones that the bobsled team represents a fresh start with new teammates and no judgments.
“Seeing that she was in one of those low points in her life and needing to rebuild, I wanted to embrace her and let her know ‘Hey, as much as you have haters or whatever is going on, we on the bobsled are like woo-hooo!, Lolo Jones, you’re awesome,’” Fenlator said. “She knows I’m the class clown. For both of us, if you don’t laugh you’re going to cry because there are so many hard times you’re faced with.”
Jones appreciated the gesture.
“She was just nonstop trying to cheer me up, and literally, her and Elana, kept plugging into my brain ‘We believe in you, you’re one of the best athletes,” a tearful Jones said. “They barely knew me and took me under their wing. From the first week they accepted me, they embraced me, they lifted me up. And I think it’s what I needed to not only to be a bobsled athlete but to return to track with my head held high.”
In the meantime, Fenlator and Jones are now a team within a team in USA 3. Fenlator takes the helm of the sled with two things on her mind.
“Competing here, then after Sochi, helping my family get back on its feet,” she said.