It all started when little Jen Rodriguez went to a birthday party at the local roller rink.
“At 4 years old she was already doing gymnastics,” recalls her father, Joe Rodriguez, “but she demanded lessons in roller skating. She just was determined. She went to practice six days a week and didn’t want to be anything but the best.”
As a teen, Rodriguez won national and world roller skating titles—in-line and figure. But in 1996, at age 19, she took a hairpin career turn into ice speedskating. The Miami native hit the foreign surface and never looked back. The first and only Latina world speedskating champ, she made four Olympic teams before retiring in 2010.
Now off the world stage and back in her hometown, Rodriguez is studying athletic training in the University of Miami’s School of Education and Human Development and working as a trainer at the Herbert Wellness Center with the same humble determination she brought to her previous goals.
“There is really no one like her,” says her former figure-skating coach, Cheryl Manning Hudson. “Artistic and speed on roller skates is like swimming and diving—they’re both in water but completely different. Then to move to the ice and become a world-class skater is amazing.”
Rodriguez’s timing was good too. Ice speedskating had moved to skates that were more like inline roller skates—perfect for her technique. Within 18 months, the Palmetto Senior High graduate was at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. She placed fourth in the women’s 3,000 meter.
Four years later in Salt Lake City Rodriguez made history as the first Cuban-American to medal in the Olympic Winter Games, capturing bronze in the 1,000- and 1,500-meter races. “We don’t get a lot of attention in speed skating, but since we were in America, we always had people cheering us,” she says of her favorite Olympic appearance. “We really felt patriotic, too, because it was so soon after 9/11.”
For the next two years she racked up more championships and over 30 international medals, setting two new track records. She won the 1,000-meter world sprint championship in 2005 and made her third Olympic team in 2006.
After Torino that year, Rodriguez retired. By late 2008, though, unable to stay off the ice, she was racing again. But as she blazed her way back to victory, her mother succumbed to the breast cancer she’d lived with for 17 years. Still grieving her death, Rodriguez went on to compete in the 2010 Olympics in tribute to her mother’s strength. “No matter how hard I worked,” she says, “I knew it was nothing compared to what my mom went through.”
Rodriguez took two sixth places in Vancouver and made her final exit from skating at age 34. “You don’t want to retire too early, but it was time,” she says.
“I may coach one day, but I’m turning my focus to help athletes in training,” adds the 5-foot-4-inch phenom once known as “Miami Ice” and “J-Rod.” “I was always a UM fan as a kid and dreamed of going here. I just postponed it 20 years or so.”