Before enduring Russian customs and security to get to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Alpine snowboarder Justin Reiter and bobsled pilot Jazmine Fenlator had already been through the mill.
Reiter, 33, a World Cup silver champion who missed the last two Olympics due to injuries, lived out of his pickup truck in Utah last summer when money got tight. Combined with all the hardscrabble jobs he's held over the last 14 years—mountain bike mechanic, pizza cook and busboy among them—the quote on Reiter's Facebook page makes perfect sense: "The essential thing in life is not to conquer, but to struggle well."
The 28-year-old Fenlator and her family lost their home to Hurricane Irene in 2011. Her mother suffers from several serious illnesses. And untimely deaths have plagued the family for years. All this while Fenlator trained 10 hours a day, shouldered a master's degree–load of schoolwork and worked four jobs at a time.
Reiter and Fenlator have taken widely divergent paths to Sochi. But there's little doubt they're Olympic soul mates who have faced hardship, weathered financial crises, rebounded from injuries, staved off emotional exhaustion and soldiered on. If adversity is an anvil on which success is forged, Reiter and Fenlator should bring home Olympic medals when the games end Feb. 23.
At Sochi, Reiter is scheduled to compete Feb. 19 and Feb. 22 in the parallel giant slalom and parallel slalom events, where he stands a good chance to medal against a top-flight bunch of Canadians. The women's bobsled competition begins Feb. 18, and Fenlator can hardly wait if her enthusiastic Twitter messages over the last week are any indication. She and her U.S. squad made history in December when it won all the podiums at the World Cup, which augurs well for medaling in Russia.
Keeping their dream alive
"Hope floats," the relentlessly upbeat Fenlator is fond of saying. "If you can hang on to an ounce of hope, then you can persevere through anything."
That means bouncing back from the storm that leveled her house in Wayne, N.J., two years ago, leaving her family homeless for four months. It means caring for her 55-year-old mother, who suffers from lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, heart problems, diabetes and the aftermath of a stroke. It means continuing the almost endless hunt for financial support to keep her ambitious Olympics dream alive—an effort that she estimates will run more than $70,000 in this Olympic year, dominated by 10-hour training days.
Those expenses include paying off student loans, shelling out several hundred dollars a month for cell phone service and several hundred more for rent and food. On top of that, Fenlator has had to shell out several thousand dollars for international and domestic airline tickets—training is split between Lake Placid, N.Y., and St. Moritz, France—special clothing, coaches and state-of-the-art equipment.
Fenlator got into bobsledding in 2007 when her coach at New Jersey's Rider University, where she was a track-and-field star, ironically suggested she find something to extend her athletic career. "I have known since I was about five years old that I wanted to go to the Olympic Games," she said. "I didn't necessarily know the sport I would be involved in to get there, but I knew that the goal was always there."
"To be frank, the past two years have been filled with some of the roughest moments for me and my family," Fenlator blogged in March, noting that she heavily leans on her friends, her church, her U.S. National Bobsled Team teammates and her mother for support. "Quitting is not in my vocabulary."
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Reiter was raised in the Colorado mountains, where he has been skiing since he was two. He's a North American Cup winner but narrowly failed to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics due to injuries. From there, the road to this month's games only got rougher.
After being named an alternate on the 2010 Olympics team, Reiter said he was "feeling empty and taken aback. I really just kind of shut down and retreated into my thoughts." He drifted from job to job for the next two years. When he couldn't find fulfillment, he decided to go for broke and give the snowboard thing one more try, despite the daunting financial challenges he faced.
For every superstar like Olympics skier Ted Ligety, who makes a small fortune in endorsements and corporate sponsorships, there are hundreds of winter athletes who quietly live hand-to-mouth, scrambling daily to support their pursuits. During the run-up to the Olympics, Reiter's monthly costs have been hitting almost $7,000. That includes $2,200 for plane tickets; coaching fees and expenses, $1,700; rental cars, $500; lodging, $1,200; tech fees, $300; equipment, $300; and food, $500.
He has funded that load for years through a long list of odd jobs (mechanic, chef, busboy, golf pro, physical therapist, sales manager); a few corporate sponsorships (SG Snowboards, Red Bull and the Steamboat Ski Resort); crowdfunding contributions ($10,300 from RallyMe) and the support of friends and family. To save money last summer while training eight hours a day in Park City, Utah, he outfitted his Toyota Tundra pickup truck with a platform bed, cooler and topper, and it became his home on wheels.
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"Snowboarding has been the driving force in my life since I first started at nine years old," Reiter said. "It introduced me to discipline and sportsmanship. In 1998, when snowboarding was accepted into the Olympics, it became my dream to represent the United States in the Winter Games and to win a medal. Since then, I have taken every step and made every sacrifice to move toward that dream."
Fenlator's just as stoked, but philosophic, about her quest that has led all the way to Russia.
"My Olympic journey has been a long road filled with highs and lows, struggles and victories," she said of the made-for-TV-movie gauntlet she has run. "But at the end of it all, my true goal and mission in life is to inspire, motivate and give people hope. If I can say in my lasting breaths that I changed someone's life for the better just by sharing my story, it will be the happiest moment I end my days with."
—By Bob Diddlebock, Special to CNBC.com