January 20, 2000
Cuban American Olympic Skater Heats up the Ice

                         By RICARDO VAZQUEZ

                         January 20, 2000

                         Barely four years ago, world champion inline skater Jennifer Rodriguez traded her
                         roller blades for a pair of speedskates and hit the ice -- literally.

                         "I had to put on these really long thin blades, and I was all over the place,"
                         recalled Rodriguez. "I was slipping and sliding. I was skating really slowly and kind
                         of holding on to the pads around the outside [of the rink]."

                         Not surprising for a Cuban American athlete who grew up in
                         tropical Miami and whose experiences on the ice were limited
                         to family outings at the local skating rink.

                         That was until boyfriend and speedskater KC Boutiette
                         convinced her to bundle up and head for Milwaukee's Pettit
                         National Ice Center to take on a sport she had never
                         participated in before.

                         Her first embarrassing weeks on the ice, however, almost
                         made her change her mind. "Everyday I came home and I was
                         crying," said Rodriguez. "I was like, 'I hate it here, I hate the
                         cold weather. I don't want to be here.'"

                         Despite her frustration, Rodriguez kept working at it. Her
                         persistence paid off. "For some reason, after two weeks
                         something clicked," she said. "I wasn't slipping and sliding all
                         over the place, and I actually looked somewhat like a
                         speedskater...all of a sudden, I caught on. I figured out how to

                         Not only did Rodriguez catch on, but she became a
                         world-class speedskater. A little more than two years after
                         she first set foot on the ice, she won a spot on the U.S.
                         Speedskating Team that competed in the 1998 Nagano
                         Winter Olympics, solidifying her place among the world's elite
                         skaters. If that weren't enough, she finished fourth in the 3000
                         meter Olympic race, barely missing the bronze medal by 2.1

                         The daughter of a Cuban-born father and an American
                         mother, Rodriguez doesn't miss the irony of her
                         accomplishments on ice. "Growing up in Miami, I never
                         thought I'd be an iceskater or any winter sports athlete at all,"
                         she said. "Especially, from what I've been told, I'm the first
                         Cuban American to compete in the Winter Olympics. So just
                         to be that is pretty neat, just to know that of all these years, I'm
                         like, the only person to do that. I guess it's a pretty big feat I've

                         At 23, Rodriguez has become not only the first Cuban American, but
                         also the first Latina to compete as a member of the United States
                         Speedskating Olympic Team. And for some of that Rodriguez has her
                         parents to thank. After her first miserable experiences on the ice,
                         they encouraged her not to give up. "My parents said that I had to give it
                         one month," remembered Rodriguez. "'And if you don't like it
                         after one month, then you can come home,' they said."

                         Not that it was easy for Rodriguez, who already was a 12-time roller
                         skating champion and the only athlete to have won competitions in
                         both speed and figure inline skating. "So for me to come to Milwaukee
                         and to have to suck it all up, and to say 'hey you're terrible' and to start
                         from scratch, was really hard for me to do." After her impressive
                         performance at the Nagano Winter Games, Rodriguez now has her
                         eyes set on the 2002 Olympics. "Of course the goal is a medal at the
                         Olympics," she said. "I don't care what race it is. I would just like to
                         get a medal, and of course I would love it to be gold."

                         So would her parents, who have encouraged their daughter and cheered
                         her on through 16 years of inline skating, and now as a speedskater. For
                         her father, said Rodriguez, the possibility of an Olympic medal is
                         something that makes him even more excited since the sport qualifies as an
                         Olympic event, unlike inline skating.

                          "My dad would have let me do whatever sport I wanted to do," said
                          Rodriguez, "but I knew he always wanted me to be in an Olympic sport."

                         And both father and daughter seem single-minded in this quest. "Even
                         right now, when I have the world championships coming up in two
                         weeks, and the rest of the season to finish up...I'm still thinking 2002,"
                         said Rodriguez.

                         For someone used to persevering, it makes sense that Rodriguez's
                         advice for young Latina athletes is "don't give up. Go out and try
                         whatever you can, util you find something you like and just stick with it,
                         and work your butt off."

                         Last change: January 20, 2000