PYEONCHANG, South Korea – Unwinding the past four years of Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian’s athletic career takes you through two counties, the U.S. and Jamaica, and through a decision that leaves the 32-year-old New Jersey native less than a week away from being part of Olympic history.
She was raised in Wayne, N.J., to a Jamaica-born father and a mother of German, Polish and Latvian descent, herself a second-generation immigrant to the USA. After a standout track and field career at Rider University in Lawrence Township, N.J., her college coach suggested she transition to bobsled, a sport that makes the most of athletes with length, strength and stamina.
Then it gets complicated. Seven years after taking up the sport, Fenlator-Victorian earned a spot as the pilot for the U.S. bobsled team in Sochi, finishing 11th in the event. In 2015, she decided to change her national affiliation from the U.S. to Jamaica, drawn by her father’s heritage and two significant goals: to help the country qualify for the first time in women’s bobsled, and in turn to positively impact a generation of Jamaican girls tuning into these Winter Games.
“It’s important to me that little girls and little boys see someone that looks like that, talks like them, has the same culture as them,” she said, “has crazy curly hair and wears it natural, has brown skin, included in different things in this world. When you grow up and you don’t see that, you feel like you can’t do it. And that is not right.
“So, coming home to Jamaica, I wanted my Jamaican people to see that they can do it. And that there’s not just one path this way and one path that way to get out of poverty and make a name for themselves. If they want to be a Winter Olympian and do alpine ski, now they see their fellow Jamaicans at the Winter Olympics.”
Beginning with their initial training heats on Feb. 17, Fenlator-Victorian and her teammates, Carrie Russell and Audra Segree, will first make history – emulating Jamaica’s famed 1988 men’s team, immortalized in the film Cool Runnings – and then take aim at something perhaps even more substantial.
It’s not completely out of the question that the Jamaican team could contend for a medal on the women’s side, even in the team’s debut. Last January, the team notched Jamaica’s first-ever medal in North American Cup competition, capturing a bronze at an event held in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“I feel that the girls will make the podium,” said Olivia Grange, Jamaica’s Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport.
The confidence stems in some part from Fenlator-Victorian’s comfort level with the track at the Alpensia Sliding Centre. Despite not qualifying for the training period here last March, Fenlator-Victorian and Russell came to Pyeonchang as bystanders, spending hours and hours at the track as competitors went through their heats.
Fenlator-Victorian saw a track with a fast start – proven by the blistering starts by several lugers during the first two rounds of the men’s singles competition – and the sort of “technical difficulty that encompasses bobsled.”
“It’s one of my favorite tracks in the year right now, and that’s a big thing (to say) after 10 years in the sport,” she said. “To me, this track is bobsled. It’s hard to describe, but what is bobsled? It’s a struggle. It’s painful, it’s heartbreaking, challenging, conflicting, chaos, organized, a thrill. It’s just something that’s in you.”
As has been the case since her shift in affiliation three years ago, the Jamaican team will follow Fenlator-Victorian’s lead. She’s been a mentor for Russell and Segree, with the latter crediting Fenlator-Victorian for “all the stuff I know” about the sport.
“Jazmine was patient with us, teaching us what to do, especially on race days and training days. Little stuff that we may not know if we didn’t have Jazmine’s experience,” Segree added.
It’s one significant way the women’s team differs from their male counterparts, who three decades ago arrived at the Calgary Games amid attention and fanfare yet failed to complete their Olympic run. While other teams are favored – Canada was the pre-Games pick, and the U.S. is a strong contender for gold – Jamaica will be a factor.
But that’s not necessarily why Fenlator-Victorian, born and raised in the U.S. and once part of the country’s bobsled program, made the choice to join Jamaica’s budding women’s team.
“I grew up in a diverse home,” she said. “My parents instilled in me you never have to choose. I will always be Jamaican, I will always be German-Polish-Latvian and American. To embrace that, to embrace my diversity and share that with the world. That’s why I came back home.”
By: Paul Myerberg