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Out of Miami, Rodriguez Is Warming to Ice

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 1998; Page D1

 "I think every athlete dreams of going to the Olympics," says Jennifer Rodriguez, a former in-line skater turbed speedskater. (Dan Currier/AP)
NAGANO, Feb. 1 — A bit more than two years ago, Jennifer Rodriguez put on speedskates for the first time and — the way she saw it — made a complete fool of herself in front of the U.S. speedskating team. A former world champion in-line skater, Rodriguez stumbled helplessly around Milwaukee's Pettit National Ice Center trying to learn a skill the skaters across the ice had perfected.

The fact that Rodriguez had been born and raised in Miami and had no experience with winter — let alone winter sports — did not diminish her frustration. A Cuban American, Rodriguez grew up in Kendall in South Miami, where residents define "freezing cold" as temperatures below 60 degrees. About the only time Rodriguez put her foot on ice in her youth was to soothe a sprained ankle.

Despite her early difficulties, Rodriguez didn't merely get the hang of speedskating. She went from awful to one of the nation's best in 28 months. Several weeks ago, she won a spot on the U.S. speedskating team, making the transition that her boyfriend, KC Boutiette, also made, going from an elite in-line skater to a world-class speedskater.

The satisfaction of this achievement is enhanced by her background. When the Games get underway with Saturday's Opening Ceremonies, she will become the first Hispanic athlete to compete in a Winter Olympics. She also is believed to be the only Miamian. Rodriguez's father, Emilio, was born in Cuba; her mother, from Buffalo, is not of Latin descent.

"It's not my main focus but it's in the back of my head," Rodriguez, 21, said after a practice session at the M-Wave, the speedskating venue. "But when I heard I was the only person from Miami to compete in the Winter Olympics and plus to be the only Cuban, that's a really neat thing."

Because Boutiette made the 1994 U.S. Olympic speedskating team after just a few weeks of training, he was convinced that Rodriguez, his longtime friend and recent girlfriend, also could do it. Rodriguez didn't believe him, but after 16 years on roller skates, she was burned out by that activity and was willing to try something else. Speedskating offered a chance to accomplish a lifelong goal.

"I think every athlete dreams of going to the Olympics," she said. "I always hoped maybe roller skating would get in there, but not in my time. . . . My dad was always saying: 'Why skating? Skating's not in the Olympics. Why don't you try cycling — cycling is in the Olympics.' He is totally excited about this."

Rodriguez's first two weeks on skates were miserable.

"I was just 'KC's girlfriend' out there trying to learn to skate," Rodriguez said. "I was embarrassed. Here I was a world class in-line skater, an artistic skater, this and that, and I get to the ice and can't do anything in front of the United States' best speedskaters."

Two other former in-line skaters, Derek Parra and Jondon Trevena, also qualified for the Olympic team.

"I don't know if everybody can do it," Rodriguez said. "The more people you see here, the more people that come to the Pettit Center, but a lot haven't done anything with it. I don't know why it was easier for us to make the transfer."

Rodriguez and Boutiette not only have taken the same route to the Olympics, they also share a taste for the unconventional. Like Boutiette, Rodriguez has her ears pierced in several places and another piercing in an odd place. Boutiette's spare earring is in his tongue; Rodriguez wears hers in her belly button. After the Olympics, she intends to get an Olympic rings tattoo to match Boutiette's.

The two live together in Milwaukee, where Rodriguez moved late in 1996 in order to train. In the offseason, she attends Florida International University in Miami, where she is working on a degree in physical therapy or massage therapy.

Boutiette is "the bad boy," she said. "We're very similar. The only difference is I'm very quiet and shy, whereas KC doesn't care what anyone thinks. He's very outspoken."

Another difference is that while Boutiette will be a favorite to medal in the 1,500 meters, an event for which he briefly held the world record last year, Rodriguez believes she is somewhere in the middle of a learning curve. She will compete in the 3,000 and 1,000 meters.

"I don't really have a chance to medal," she said. "That would be a long shot. I would like to place in the top 15."

For a woman who possesses 12 world championship and 10 U.S. Festival medals in roller skating, that doesn't seem such a daunting task. This season was Rodriguez's first at the international level. She earned the chance to compete on the World Cup circuit with a fourth- place finish in last year's U.S. Allround Championships. She said the introduction of clap skates last year helped her improve more quickly.

Her parents will be in Nagano, shouting for Rodriguez in Spanish and English. Though Rodriguez never managed to learn fluent Spanish despite her father's use of it, she said, there was one thing about growing up in Miami that remained ingrained.

"I have to wear a lot of clothes on the ice," Rodriguez said. "I get cold really easily."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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