Less than a year ago, Jilleanne Rookard was ready to quit speedskating.
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Good thing she didn’t.
Rookard is heading to the Olympics for the second time after winning the 3,000 meters at the U.S. speedskating trials Friday night, coming back from a couple of poor seasons that left her wondering if she wanted to go on.
”Physically, emotionally, mentally — everything just kind of collapsed,” she recalled.
The 30-year-old Rookard looked just fine on the opening night of the trials, surging across the line in 4 minutes, 9.66 seconds – more than 4 seconds ahead of the next-fastest skater.
Giddy about her performance, she sprayed champagne on the victory stand.
Rookard was 12th in the 3,000 at the 2010 Vancouver Games, competing just a couple of months after cancer claimed her mother’s life. She never sufficiently grieved over the loss, and it finally caught up with her.
Last season, Rookard walked away shortly before the world championships, packing her car and heading back to her family home in Michigan. Her coaches frantically tried to persuade her to get on a plane, but she had reached her breaking point. It was only after four months off that she felt ready to resume her career.
”I went through some big depression the last couple of years,” Rookard said. ”I didn’t have any decompression time. That was a big learning point for me.”
Rookard moved to Norway before this season to train with coach Peter Mueller, a former U.S. Olympic medalist. The change revitalized Rookard’s passion for the sport.
She wound up making the Olympic team easily, far ahead of Anna Ringsred at 4:13.80. The top two are expected to be selected to the Olympic team when it is officially announced on New Year’s Day.
Ringsred, 29, will likely be heading to her first Olympics after a 15-year-old skating career. She was already planning to retire after this season, so she knew this was her final opportunity.
”I really wanted it,” she said. ”I was so scared going into this. A lot was at stake. This was my last chance. I can’t believe it. I made it.”
Ringsred’s triumph meant heartache for 35-year-old Theresa Cliff-Ryan, who finished third in a personal-best 4:14.56 but just missed a spot on the team.
It was another close call in an athletic career filled with them.
Cliff-Ryan was a longtime inline skater who switched to cycling in an attempt to make the Summer Olympics. She barely failed to qualify for the U.S. team in both 2008 and 2012, then went back to skating – on blades instead of wheels – in a last-ditch attempt to make the Winter Games.
After just 6 1/2 months on ice, she nearly pulled it off.
”It’s disappointing,” Cliff-Ryan said. ”But I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done.”
The trials are being held at the Utah Olympic Oval, site of speedskating during the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. The men competed in the 5,000 later Friday, with three spots available for the Olympic team.