Olympics / Sports

Fenlator carries family pride, struggles into bobsled race

ADLER, Russia -- On a Russian mountainside, half a world away from her New Jersey hometown devastated by Hurricane Irene, the blue collar neighborhood her family struggled to survive in, the hospital her mother has been in and out of for much of the past year, Jazmine Fenlator and her more well-known U.S. teammate Lolo Jones, Olympic cover girl and lightning rod, will stand at the start of the Olympic Games women's bobsled competition Tuesday and the end of an improbable journey.

In those final moments before screaming down the Sanki Sliding Center course, Fenlator, 28, will find strength from the path she followed there and the connection she feels with other Americans who wrestle with similar struggles every day.

"When I go on the line, I don't feel like I'm representing me," Fenlator said. "I don't feel like I'm representing USA Bobsled, I feel like I'm representing the raw American, the citizen that's going to work from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. just to put food on the table, reconstruct their home, rebuild their life. And that's kind of how I grew up, so it really means a lot to me."

Fenlator and Jones could not have followed more divergent routes to the Sochi Games.

Jones, the team's push athlete, came from track, where her world-class hurdling and self-promotion skills landed her appearance fees, corporate endorsements and a constant spot in the media spotlight.

Fenlator, the sled's pilot, is the breadwinner for a family that includes an ailing mother and younger sister. In the years leading to the Olympics, she has juggled training while working three jobs. There were times when she worked scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets late into the night and only to be back up the next morning for training.

"She's been through a lot; it's been a rough time for her family, for her," Katie Doster said of Fenlator, her childhood friend. "But she's always persisted."

"Jaz is a fighter," U.S. coach Todd Hays said.

In that sense, she is her mother's daughter.

Suzie Fenlator, 55, has had lupus, an incurable autoimmune disease since she was 23.

"She's had lupus my entire life," Jazmine said. "When she was diagnosed, they didn't think she would survive."

Her liver and kidneys failed and her lungs collapsed. A priest was called to give her the last rites. Suzy survived and the disease eventually went into remission before coming back seven years ago. In recent years she has also undergone quadruple bypass surgery and suffered a series of strokes.

"She wasn't supposed to live past 40," Fenlator said. "Wasn't supposed to have kids. So at 55, two kids, she's truckin', but the reality is -- which is a pretty hard pill to swallow -- she doesn't have very much time left. She's here today. Maybe not tomorrow."

That sense of resiliency and adventurous nature that led her oldest daughter to the Olympics was also evident in Suzie from a young age.

"My mom always wanted to break down barriers and always wanted to see where she could be as a person and that's what she instilled in me," Fenlator said.

As a girl, Suzie routinely forced her way into football games with some of her 30 male cousins. When her school instituted a dress code, she dyed her hair green.

She went to college at 38. She fell in love and married a Jamaican man, even though her German, Polish and Latvian family did not approve.

"That's talking about potatoes and hot sauce," Fenlator said, laughing. "Some very diverse family dinners."

Suzie also fed Jazmine and her younger sister, Angelica, a steady diet of life's possibilities.

"She didn't push me to push the edge of the envelope," Fenlator said. "She pushed me to be open minded."

So Suzie had no problem when her daughter, who had recently taken a corporate job with Johnson & Johnson after a standout track career as a heptathlete at Rider College, told her she was following up on an email from USA Bobsledding asking her to try out for the national team program.

Fenlator has piloted U.S. sleds to six top-10 World Cup finishes this season, including a silver medal at the circuit's stop in Park City, Utah. But her rise through international bobsled racing coincided with a particularly tough period for her family. Her parents separated. Then on a stormy August night in 2011, Fenlator received a call from her sister.

Hurricane Irene had left 4 feet of water in the family's home in Wayne, N.J.

Fenlator, training with the U.S. team in Lake Placid, N.Y., five hours away, was torn. Should she go home? Or should she stay for a crucial test the next morning to determine her status on Team USA?

Suzie made the decision for her daughter: Stay and chase your dream.

"I know if I went home, it would weigh on her heart why she had to bring me home when I was supposed to be following my dreams," Jazmine said. "Sometimes it's hard for me to grasp, but I know if I continue my path, that's where's she's happy.

"She's always given her life to her kids and her family. I guess you could say she lives through us, so our dreams are her dreams."

Suzie gave Jazmine similar advice as her daughter prepared to travel to the Olympics. Suzie was in the hospital, battling pneumonia, and the lupus and a half-dozen ministrokes since September that have left her nearly blind.

She might have lost her vision but not of her daughter's dream. Focus, she told her daughter, on the Olympics, not on me.

Three weeks after Hurricane Irene, Fenlator returned home. Suzie had lived in her car for a while, sending Angelica to stay with friends, then spent 12 weeks in a hotel.

"When I walked into our house, we didn't have one," Jazmine said. "There's nothing left. All of our items were gone, pictures, memories. My mom was in a hotel with Tupperware buckets of whatever she could salvage.

There were no walls, no floor, toilet was ripped out, the plumbing was all over the place."

Workers had put what little else they found in a pile in what had been the living room.

"Mold growing on it or sludgy water, pictures stuck together," Fenlator said. "I didn't go through it. My mom and I had a conversation and she said, 'They're just items. I'm still here, you're still here, your sister's here. We're healthy, we're healthy as we can be. And that's what we hold on to, is each other, the love that we have.'

"Just because we don't have pictures doesn't mean I'm going to forget."

So on a Russian mountainside, half a world away from the wreckage and rubble she has risen from, Fenlator will stand empowered by the struggles she has shared with countless Americans, every bit her mother's daughter.

"I know that living every day and pushing to be the best that I can be and sending out my messages, informing people about lupus, informing them about the loving family I came from and the morals and ethics I was taught, is something (Suzie) is proud of," Fenlator said, "and something I can give back to her."

(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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