From a distance, Jennifer Rodriguez will look much like the other 1,962 students graduating from the University of Miami on Friday. She’ll be wearing a cap and gown, and surely a big smile, as she crosses the stage at the BankUnited Center to receive her diploma.
Diehard Winter Olympic fans may do a double take and discover that yes, it is indeed that Jennifer Rodriguez, the four-time Olympic speedskater who grew up in Miami and won two bronze medals at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. She turns 37 in June, has the Olympic rings tattooed on her left ankle, and Friday will receive her degree in exercise physiology, the first step toward her ultimate goal of a career in orthopedics.
Standing on the Olympic medal podium was something she dreamed about since watching gymnast Mary Lou Retton in the 1984 Olympics. She says earning a diploma — with a 3.9 GPA in her major — will be more gratifying, in a way, because studying was not nearly as fun or natural to her as racing around ovals on skates.
“I think I might cry,” Rodriguez said. “This was tougher for to me to accomplish than winning medals. I did sports my whole life and was always good at it. School never came easy for me. I was aB and C student in junior high and high school. I spent one year at FIU, but was just going through the motions.
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“Now that I’m older, as old as some of my professors, I really wanted to learn the material. I worked really, really, really hard to earn this degree. I put all the energy and determination I had for skating into school.”
On Wednesday, Rodriguez was given the Outstanding Award for Excellence in Exercise Physiology. She said it was the first academic honor she had ever received.
“For me to win an academic honor is a huge accomplishment,” she said. “I put my whole life on hold to train for the Olympics, and then at age 32 I went back to living the life of an 18-19 year old, living with my dad, working a part-time job, being basically a poor broke college student for four years.”
Rodriguez, who is Cuban-American, grew up a Hurricanes football fan and said UM was her “dream school” coming out of Palmetto High, but she didn’t have the grades and her family didn’t have the money.
She mentioned that to UM president Donna Shalala when they met on the pitcher’s mound at a Hurricanes baseball game in the spring of 2002. Rodriguez had been asked to throw out the first pitch as a celebration of her Olympic medals. Shalala told her if she ever decided to return to college, to let her know and she would try to help make it happen.
After the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Rodriguez felt it was time to hang up the skates and pursue an education and a career.
“I wanted to move on, and I knew my time with skating was up,” she said. “Most Olympic athletes don’t retire with a nice nest egg, so we have to start over.”
She got in touch with Shalala, who got the enrollment process rolling and has kept tabs on Rodriguez ever since. After 12 years out of the classroom, it was a big adjustment.
Rodriguez said she had to relearn the most basic academic skills, such as taking notes and writing an essay.
“It was a little overwhelming,” she said. “I had to learn how to learn again.”
She got a part-time job as a trainer in the Wellness Center on campus. Every free minute she had, she headed to a little gray table to study. Co-workers teased her that they were going to put a plaque above the table and dedicate it to her.
She said most students and professors had no idea who she was.
“My face is not one you recognize,” she said. “Once in a while someone at the Wellness Center would look at me twice, and if they heard my name, they’d remember my story. They knew the story of the Miami speedskater, but they didn’t know my face.”
Rodriguez plans to take some time off to relax and get back onto her bicycle to get in shape again. She misses the 50-mile bike rides that became more infrequent as the homework load increased. She will move to Maryland to join firefighter boyfriend Phil Stratton, and then apply to graduate schools.
Stratton will be in the audience Friday for the graduation, along with Rodriguez’s father, brother, sister-in-law, niece and her mom’s cousin from Boston. Her one regret is that her mother, Barbara, won’t be there. She died of cancer in June 2009.
“She would have been so proud of me, to know I finally became a Miami Hurricane,” Rodriguez said. “If I told her I won an academic award, she’d be like ‘Holy Moly!’ I wish she could be here for this. She’ll definitely be on my mind.”