Amy Donaldson: Rookard balances caring for mom, Olympic dreams
Ravell Call, Deseret News
Jilleanne Rookard celebrated making the 2010 U.S. Olympic team with a phone call.
"I just can't wait to call my mom," said Rookard with a smile. "She's sitting at home in bed sick. This will really cheer her up."
The entire Rookard family was in need of good news this weekend.
Just the day before, 65-year-old Claire Rookard was told by doctors that she needed more chemotherapy for the Multiple Myeloma that had been ravaging her body for the last five years. Jilleanne's sister called her with the bad news as she trained for the last World Cup competition for potential Olympic athletes.
"It was a sad day yesterday," said Rookard, Friday afternoon at the Utah Olympic Oval. "We found out she needs another round of chemo and we just don't know if she can take it. I'm not sure she'll make it to the Olympics."
Claire has been so optimistic about her daughter's abilities, she rented a condo and made plans to travel to Vancouver even before Jilleanne secured her spot in the 5,000-meter and 1,500-meter events.
Her mother's faith and support have made it easier for Rookard to struggle through difficult financial and emotional times in pursuit of a dream that is now just 60 days away from reality.
"Oh, I always wanted to go to the Olympics," she said. "I thought it would be in in-line skating because there was talk of including roller sports for a while."
But that never happened. A decorated in-line skater, she retired in 2005 and took care of her mom right after her initial diagnosis. The youngest of seven children, her father passed away eight years ago. Jilleanne felt caring for her mother was the least she could do for the woman who helped her fulfill all of her dreams.
"She used to bring me to the roller rink all the time when I was a kid," she said. "It's all her and my dad. They're my heroes. They never forced me to do anything, but they have always supported me. They've laid down big bucks."
Just as her mother was improving, a friend offered to pay her way to a speedskating competition.
"Everybody told me to try (speedskating), but I didn't have the in," she said. "In one weekend, I had a coach, skates, an apartment and a roommate. I didn't know what I was getting into. It is a totally different sport."
It was, however, a sport she'd learned to love growing up in Milwaukee, even if she didn't try it until she was in her 20s.
In just three short years, she's developed into one of the world's best. But her success has cost her precious moments with her mom.
"This year has been more of a sacrifice," she said of training and traveling more. "I just cherish every moment I have with her. "
What was once weeks or months has dwindled to a few days here and there.
"I just made those days count," she said.
She constantly struggles with being away from her family at such a critical time.
"I felt some responsibility," she said of taking care of her mom. "This has been a family project. I feel guilty sometimes because my family has given up so much for me my entire life."
She cannot be there to take her mom to treatment or help her in and out of bed. So she does what she can on the ice to make her mom proud.
"She wants me to be here," said Rookard. "That motivates me."
Friday night, she called her mom and offered Claire a welcome distraction from the monotony of her illness.
"I found a quiet spot over by the lockers and had a really special moment," she said. "She's just super proud."
Rookard's coach Kip Carpenter said Jilleanne is getting a "mandatory trip home" after Sunday's races.
"Many times I'm quite torn," she said. "What time do I devote to family? What time do I devote to skating? It's a year-to-year thing."
The fact that she feels torn is just another obstacle for woman who works part-time as a disk jockey at a roller rink in order to pay basic bills. She has relied on donations to help her pay for training and travel, although making the Olympic team should bring her more financial support from U.S. Speedskating.
Despite her success this weekend, Jilleanne admits knowing her mom is deteriorating may have some impact on her performances.
"It's pretty upsetting," she said. "She's proud of me either way. I was already doing well. I've just got to get through this weekend."
"Either way, she'll be with me. I've got to come to grips with that. It's a harsh reality. These might be my mom's last days and I really want to be with her."
Rookard takes some comfort in that fact that she will hold onto a lifetime of love and advice.
"I hear her in my head all the time," said Rookard, her blue eyes shining. "When things get negative, I hear her positive voice."
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