Kearns • Jilleanne Rookard grasped the bottle of champagne with both hands and let it fly. The 30-year-old Michigan native popped the cork and emptied the glass bottle of its contents minutes after all but guaranteeing a return to her second Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in February 2014.
But Friday evening's victory in the women's 3,000 meter long-track Olympic qualifiers was more than just the moment atop the podium for the Olympian who finished 12th in the 3,000-meter race at Vancouver in 2010.
It was validation.
In February, Rookard packed up her car from her home in Park City and set off for her home state when she should have been prepping for a trip to Sochi of all places for the sport's World Championships.
The weight of the previous three years had finally pushed the jovial Midwestern to the brink. Rookard hadn't completely processed the death of her mother in December 2009 and she kept trying to power through after the 2010 Games assuming things would get better.
"I didn't take time to decompress and spend time with any family," she said. "I went into a deep depression and every season I just came back too soon."
In February, the anxiety reached its peak.
"I said if I don't stop now, I'm never going to make it through next year," Rookard said. "I'm at my limit -Â I'm barely keeping my head above water."
She eventually moved to Oslo, Norway, for four months to train with her coach and some athletes ahead of the crucial Olympic-qualifying year, a move she said would hopefully shape her away from the distractions and politics within the sport and team.
The risks have now been a return. Rookard set three personal records in the races leading up to the long-track Olympic qualifiers at the Olympic Oval in Kearns. Rookard and her teammates set a new national record on Team Pursuit and she is now mere weeks away from Sochi, a trip she canceled on just 10 months ago to revitalize her approach to the sport and galvanize her mind.
"I don't feel drained, I feel energized and now I know more than ever it was the right decision," she said.
Standing to Rookard's right on the podium Friday was Anna Ringsred, who similarly stepped away from long track to evaluate after barely missing out on Vancouver. A skater for 15 years, Ringsred's dream of being an Olympian is that much closer after finishing second in the 3,000 meter race, earning her a nomination to be included on the team following the trials fulfilling the team slots allotted to the Americans.
"I was so close last time," she said, "it would be a shame to just not try one more time."
The 29-year-old chemical engineer who lives and trains in Calgary, Alberta, took a year and a half off after 2010 to focus on studies. She graduated from the University of Calgary two years ago, but had the luxury of having an oval to train in after deciding to make one last run.
Entering these trials, Ringsred made a decision she was to stick by: If the qualifying times weren't there, the skates would be hung up.
But odds are she'll have to wait until after Sochi.
"I can't quite believe it, so I'm still kind of scared that something might happen because this is a dream come true," Ringsred said.
Emery Lehman of Oak Park, Ill., a 17-year-old high school senior finished second in the men's 5,000-meter qualifier Friday night, essentially stamping his spot in Sochi. Jonathan Kuck won the event, while Patrick Meek finished third, as all three athletes have earned nominations.
"This isn't my peak," Lehman said. "I know I can get better and that's what I'm looking forward to."
O At the Utah Olympic Oval, Kearns
Saturday •Â Men's and women's 500,Â 9:30 a.m.
Sunday •Â Men's and women's 1,000,Â 11:30 a.m.
Tuesday • Men's and women's 1,500,Â 3 p.m.
Wednesday, Jan. 1 • Men's 10,000 and women's 5,000, 1:30 p.m.