KEARNS — Jilleanne Rookard was supposed to skate against the world’s best long track speedskaters at the 2013 world championships last March.
Instead, she was in Michigan coaching roller derby and trying to keep up with her 8-year-old niece’s inline team.
“My goal was just to get back to the fun of the sport,” Rookard said Friday after her victory in the 3,000-meter race at the Utah Olympic Park in Kearns secured her spot on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team. “I just wanted to reconnect with something that I loved, not make it such a job. … I got roasted. It was so much fun. It just reminded me of why I do this.”
Rookard never intended to take time away from the sport she loved.
But the 29-year-old said she never really took enough time to deal with the death of her mother in December 2009, and eventually, she was overwhelmed and unable to focus on training or competition.
“I had a really good year after the Olympics, but I think that was only my training carrying me through because I was really mentally a mess,” she said. “I just didn’t take time for me to decompress. I spent about a month at home, and it just wasn’t enough. I went into deep depression mode.”
Practices nearly always devolved into tears and she felt like her sadness was brining her teammates down.
“I was literally crying every day at practice,” said Rookard, whose time of 4:09.56 was good enough for first place Friday. “It was tough. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
While everyone assumed time had healed the wound left after she lost her mother, she saw constant reminders of what she didn’t have.
“Mother’s Day comes every year,” she said. “Father’s Day comes every year, and I’d lost my dad too. For me to get to my biggest moment, and for them to not be here to witness it. … Yes, they’re watching me in heaven right now. I’m very sure of that. But when everybody else’s parents are in the stands, it just, I try not to think about it, but it hurts.” It hurt so much that eventually the pain was consuming and debilitating.
The night before the team left for Europe and the world championships on the Olympic ice in Sochi, she packed her car and drove to the hotel where her family was staying.
“They actually prayed with me and for me,” she said. “I just had my head between my knees, and they just helped me through it.”
She woke in the morning knowing she couldn’t skate in another competition.
“When I thought about going home, I felt a sense of peace,” she said. “I knew it was the right decision for me.”
There were concerns about whether the U.S. would qualify spots at the world championships, and she felt pressure when she returned this season to be a better, stronger and more upbeat athlete because of how abruptly she left the team last year.
She had to prove herself to coaches — and really to herself. This season, she said, is all about feeling good about the work she does — on and off the ice.
“I knew it was a huge risk,” she said of skipping the world championships. “It was the best decision I could have ever made for me. I don’t feel drained. I feel energized, and it’s a world of difference compared to last year.”
The 2010 Olympian is enjoying one of her best seasons ever, and was part of the U.S. team pursuit foursome that set a new national record at a World Cup in November.
“We’re always comparing ourselves to every other skater,” she said. “And this year, I’m just comparing myself to my own standards. I set three personal new records this year, and the team pursuit we set a new national record. There is such a sense of accomplishment and fun now.”
She is also thrilled for her teammate, Anna Ringsred, who finished second with a time of 4:13.80 and qualified for the team as well. Ringsred, who lives and trains in Calgary where she works as a chemical engineer, was still a little shocked.
“I still can’t quite believe it,” she said. “This has been a dream come true. I’ve wanted to go my whole life, and it’s actually going to happen. I’m still scared that something might happen.”
Ringsred took a leave of absence from her job in July to give her Olympic dream one more shot. That knowledge definitely made her feel more pressure before Friday’s race.
“I was so scared going into this because there’s a lot at stake,” she said. “It’s my last chance. I made it, and I can’t believe it.”
Teresa Cliff-Ryan finished third with a time of 4:14.56.
In the men’s 5,000 meters, 2010 Olympian Jonathan Kuck won with a time of 6:19.75, while 17-year-old Emery Lehman achieved his goal of making the Olympic team with a time of 6:25.72 and a second-place finish.
“Top three is all I wanted,” Lehman said. “I paced myself really well. It went well, as expected. … I still can’t believe it. I feel like it won’t hit me for a few days.”
He said he was shaking at the start line, even though he felt confident he’d finish on the podium. He even refrained from telling too many of his teenage friends what he’s been working for the last year and a half.
“Up until this point, I didn’t really like to talk about it,” he said. “But I guess now that I’ve made it, I can talk about it.”
Patrick Meek was third with a time of 6:27.90.
“I’m happy to have qualified for the Olympics,” Kuck said. “It’s a big deal. Wasn’t my fastest race of the year, but it’s OK for the conditions today.”