Olympian Jilleanne Rookard is winning, no matter the outcome

The Olympic Games in Sochi will mark long-track speed skater Jilleanne Rookard’s second attempt at an Olympic medal. During the 2010 Games in Vancouver, she placed 12th in the 3000m contest, and eighth in the 5000m. Coming off a victory in the 3000m at the U.S. Olympic Trials, Rookard is poised for success in an Olympics that seems to be a far cry from her experience in 2010.

“God, if you want me here, let me know”

Although Rookard competed in figure skating, ice hockey and inline skating, among other sports, she didn’t take up speed skating until 2006. Rookard had taken a step back from her inline career to care for her mother who was suffering from cancer. As her mom’s condition improved, an inline sponsor suggested she give speed skating a try.

Rookard went to Milwaukee to investigate training opportunities, and said a quick prayer, “God, if you want me here, let me know.” Within a day she had a coach, roommate, job, place to live, and her mother’s house in Rookard’s home state of Michigan sold.

“It was the first time in my life where I felt like I wasn’t making any of the decisions, [God] literally made them for me,” she says. “I’ve never had anything so clearly laid out in front of me in my life.”

Ten months later she made her first World Cup team.

“I felt ashamed for being in the state that I was in”

Despite Rookard’s success in Vancouver – she was also a part of the team that finished fourth in the Ladies’ Team Pursuit – her life was not going as smoothly as the Olympics made it seem. Her mother had passed away in 2009, just after Rookard qualified for the Olympic team. In the days following the Olympics, she found herself in what she calls a “major depression” that lasted for more than two years.

“The biggest mistake I made was not taking time to grieve after the Olympics,” she recalls, admitting she doesn’t know how she managed to perform so well on the ice.

“I felt an enormous pressure to keep the ball going, I was so scared to let the opportunity to win and compete well pass me up. I forgot to take care of everything inside of me,” Rookard continues. “I wanted to be around people to bring my spirits up, but then I felt so guilty for being so sad. I felt ashamed for being in the state that I was in.”

Still, in the midst of this trial she was learning lessons that she hopes will ultimately make her stronger. A key lesson came as she examined the source of her happiness.

“I thought that people were going to fill the void,” she explains. “The number one thing I had to get comfortable with – I had to learn to be alone with God. There was nothing people could have said to get me out of [my depression]. It had to come from within.”

“I needed to get back to the reason why I skate”

Rookard’s lesson about depending on other people – particularly their approval – for happiness led to her sudden decision to take an unplanned break from skating this past year. Rather than boarding a plane to Europe for competitions leading up to Sochi, she went home.

“I needed to get back to the reason why I skate. [It’s] not that I needed to leave my coach, but I needed to leave the thought of having to get other’s approval,” she shares.

Spending time with her family, and happily losing inline races against her young niece and her teammates, Rookard remembered the reason why she competes.

“[Leaving] was the best thing I could have done. It was so refreshing. Big superstars don’t inspire me, those kids inspire me.” she says.” I need to feel like I’m playing out there.

“Whether I succeed or fail, [winning a medal or not], I need to feel satisfied feeling like God would be happy with my heart and why I’m competing.”

“Am I not just as blessed if I get last place?”

As she competes in Sochi, Rookard’s goal is to put into practice what she learned from her time away.

“As athletes, we can use our success as leverage. That’s a huge trap, because if you’re successful, you can get people to do what you want,” she explains. “You can say, ‘Oh my God, I’m so blessed,’ but am I not just as blessed if I get last place?

“I feel like I hit rock bottom last year, and the fact that I look at that as a blessing [means that] I can go into this Olympics and be free, instead of [like] last time, going in and feeling like I have to prove something,” she says. “God’s giving me a chance to feel freedom at the highest level in my sport.”

With a full heart, Rookard will compete not only for gold, but also for joy.

“I hope I just go out there and compete with a very thankful attitude. That’s my number one goal, honestly,” she says earnestly. “Yes, I’m going to go for the gold, but I’ve watched both of my parents die, and they didn’t take any of their stuff with them, so it’s silly to make that my number one priority.”

By Katie Neff, AIA Communications USA