Handcyclist Jenna Rollman Charges Toward Her Parapan American Games Debut
by Paul D. Bowker
Jenna Rollman’s season of firsts cleared a path from her hometown of Rancho Cucamonga, California, to Santiago, Chile.
She made her first world championships team this year.
She’s set to make her Parapan American Games debut this month.
And to do so, she’s going south of the equator for the first time in her life to Santiago.
“I am very excited,” said Rollman, a handcyclist who finished second to U.S. teammate Alicia Dana in the time trial WH3 at the World Cup Final last May in Huntsville, Alabama. “It looks incredible. The mountains there in Santiago just look amazing and I can’t wait to see them.”
And those are the words of a woman whose front door in Southern California practically opens up to the foothills of Mount Baldy, which rises to a peak of more than 10,000 feet in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Rollman is scheduled to compete in the women’s time trial H3 on Sunday and the road race the following Sunday, Nov. 26.
This is a worldly trip that caught Rollman by surprise. Competing in her first world championships in August in Glasgow, Scotland, Rollman placed ninth in the time trial and 11th in the road race. While there, she was among a number of road cyclists who were hit with an illness. Rollman said it was so bad she needed nausea medication and couldn’t sit up following the road race because she was so weak.
“It took me down,” Rollman said. “I hadn’t been sick in really a decade. I don’t even get colds. I don’t get headaches. I’m never sick.”
It was not what she wanted from a world championships debut.
“I was devastated,” Rollman said. “I had been primed for worlds. I was in such good shape. I was ready to go compete there, and then I did the worst I’ve ever done.”
Weeks later, when she was back home and still trying to fully recover and get back to training, she received a call from Jennie Reed, a three-time Olympian and a coach with the U.S. Para-cycling team. It was an invitation to compete at the Parapan American Games.
Rollman: “Is this for real?”
Reed: “Yes, absolutely!”
From that point, the training went back to full speed.
“I’m recovered now, and I’ve been seeing improvements in my training and my fitness,” Rollman said. “So that’s good, that I’m seeing my body respond positively. For awhile there, it was touch and go. It was very inconsistent. The fact that I’ve gotten my consistency back, I’ve raised my intensity.”
A strong showing in Santiago would put Rollman on a journey toward the Paralympic Games Paris 2024. She narrowly missed out on making the U.S. Paralympic Team in 2021.
“I was not ready to go,” she said. “It really set into motion a series of decisions and things I needed to change going towards Paris. I feel like I’ve done a very good job of becoming that Paralympic athlete.”
Rollman had three top-eight finishes in the time trial in world cup competition this year along with two fifth-place finishes in road races. Her second-place finish at the world cup final helped get her on the world championships squad for the first time.
“This year, in particular, I needed to medal. I needed to go to worlds,” Rollman said. “I needed to check those boxes, because if I’m not checking those boxes now, there’s no way I’m going to be ready to go to Paris. That’s just realistic. If you’re not making a worlds team, how do you think you’re going to go to Paralympics? If you’re not going to Santiago, how are you going to go to Paralympics? You have to be that caliber. If you’re not there a year in advance, it’s going to be so hard during the year of the Games to rise up to that level.”
Rollman’s determination in Para-cycling goes back 10 years, when a cycling accident resulted in paralysis. An able-bodied cyclist at the time, she was training for a stage race when she collided with a truck.
She was so determined to ride again that she arranged for her bike to be kept in her hospital room. She wanted the reminder.
“I was just like, ‘I am going to ride a bike again. There is no way that’s not going to happen,’” Rollman said.
Her partner, Jeff Rusk, has played a big part in moving things along, Rollman said. They bike together nearly every day.
“He does so much,” Rollman said. “He’s like a one-man show for everything. He’s my mechanic, he’s my cook, he’s my travel agent, he’s my training partner. If it wasn’t for him, there’s no way I’d be sitting here right now talking about going to Parapans. I wouldn’t be here.”
Rollman had worked as a volunteer for the handcycle races at the Redlands Classic biking event in California, so she had a good knowledge of the discipline. After chatting with other handcyclists while rehabbing, she tried it out for the first time in July 2014 and was a competitive racer by 2016.
In Santiago, she’ll get an experience that is similar to a Paralympic Games, just with fellow athletes from the Americas, instead of the entire globe.
“It’s a dry run for the actual Games,” Rollman said. “We’ll get to experience how a Games functions, which I think is really important. We get to be in the (athletes) village. We get to see how the transportation works, which is different (than a world cup). It’s not the staff driving us to the field of play. We take buses, we take transportation that the Games is providing. I want to know what that’s like for me in a wheelchair.”
Then, there’ll be the long plane ride home through six time zones and 5,500 miles. Rollman will turn 36 on that day, Nov. 27.
“I’ll get to have the longest birthday ever,” she said with a laugh.
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to USParaSnowboarding.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.