Local woman heads to Sochi to compete

By Tim French - Producer

WYANDOTTE, Mich. - Wyandotte's Jilleanne Rookard is headed back to the Olympic Winter Games. In 2010, she skated in four events, but Vancouver was not kind to her. She didn't medal then, but she now has a second chance at Olympic glory.

Rookard's journey from inline skating to the long track has been a tough and often difficult road, but now she's on her way to Sochi.

"It's weird to say two-time Olympian," Rookard said. "It's pretty cool. It's a good thing."

Rookard, who is now 31 years old, has plenty of international experience under her belt. She, like so many other speed skaters, started on wheels, competing in inline speed skating.

Rookard said being in roller skates was almost as easy for her as walking. She grew up in her family's Skateland roller skating rink in Woodhaven.

"It was just my life," Rookard said. "It was pretty nice because this was my parents work, so they would just take me to work."

She said she grew up a tomboy, playing hockey with girls and boys, and said she remembers being tough.

"I was a pretty darn good defenseman, that's for sure," Rookard said. There wasn't checking, but I definitely got a couple penalties. I think I took the end of my stick once and whacked a kid across the face with it, but he had a helmet on though."

When she got older, Rookard became more competitive in the world of inline skating.

In 2001, Rookard's father, Bill, suffered a fatal heart attack. She and her family were devastated. The only way she knew how to cope was to do the thing she and her dad loved most

"The day after my dad passed away, I think I went and skated. It affected everyone in my family. We were just very, very close and the rink was the one thing that kept us all together. We were never apart. Quitting skating actually went through my head, but I wanted to keep skating for sure."

And she did continue to skate. In fact, she started to get better. Rookard said she gained perspective on life after losing her father and it helped her grow. As she progressed on skates, the health of her mother, Claire, started to fail. She was diagnosed with multiple myloma in 2005.

"It just turned out that her bones were just pretty much decaying," Jilleanne said.

Her mom started chemo therapy. Jilleanne and her family could do nothing more than offer support.

"It was awful. I mean, it's just, you feel so helpless," Jilleanne said. "It was heartbreaking, not only to see her, but leaving her as well, because you never know the last time you're going to see somebody. I mean, I guess that's the case with anybody, but to watch it happen slowly is just a grueling, painful thing."

Claire lost her battle with cancer in December of 2009. Before she died, Jilleanne was able to tell her mom that she had made the Olympic team for 2010, but she had to do it by phone.

"It was weird because I could here her crying in the background, which was awful, but also awesome."

After the games, Jilleanne returned home to a gut wrenching environment

"It was tough coming back home because my mother's things hadn't been dealt with, so I came home and there was still blood on the pillow. Yeah, that was probably the biggest shock," Jilleanne said.

After all of that, Jilleanne had outside pressure on her to continue in the sport. She went straight back to training and didn't give herself the necessary time to grieve.

"At times I thought about overdosing on medication," Jilleanne said. "I mean, I thought about those things. I even tried to jump out of a car once. I mean, it was pretty bad."

Jilleanne recognized she needed help and went into therapy. She learned how to cope with her feelings. Today she is mentally and physically strong.

Jilleanne will compete in the 1,500-meter, the 3k and team pursuit events in Sochi. She has dreams of being on the podium, but knows two people watching from above will love her regardless of the outcome.

"That's the thing about just being with somebody spiritually," Jilleanne said. You're just there for them whether they succeed or whether they fall, and that's just who my parents were and I do feel that now."

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