Speedskater Erin Jackson makes whirlwind journey from inlines to ice to possible Olympic gold Tom SchadUSA TODAY
Erin Jackson started out as the little kid with the plastic wheels strapped to the bottom of her shoes, rattling up and down the driveway. Then she was an artistic inline skater, emulating figure skaters at the roller rink. Then a world-class speedskater on pavement. A novice speedskater on ice. A world-class speedskater on ice.
And now, finally, the prohibitive favorite to win an Olympic gold medal.
Just five years after switching from inline skating to ice, the 29-year-old Jackson enters the 2022 Beijing Olympics as the No. 1-ranked skater in the world at 500 meters. She is one of the few Black competitors in an overwhelmingly white sport, an ice-skating star from a Florida town without a year-round rink, and a professional athlete who, for most of her life, has prioritized academics over practice.
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"School was my main thing," Jackson said. "And then skating is what I would do when I could fit it in, when I had the time."
In 2018, Jackson qualified for her first Winter Olympics despite having only competed in speedskating on ice for a grand total of four months. And then, in an unusual twist of fate, she almost missed out on qualifying for the 2022 Games, despite being ranked No. 1 in the world.
Along the way, Jackson said her goals have evolved dramatically – from 2018, to earlier this season, to now.
"Going into 2018, I was just like, 'Oh wow, how did this happen?' " she recalled with a laugh, adding, "Now definitely going for the gold. And that's the goal."
'She really is a role model'
A self-described "rink rat," Jackson said she spent much of her childhood at the local inline skating rink in Ocala, Florida, listening to music or hanging out at the snack bar. She was also a roller figure skater for about two years.
"But really all I wanted to do was go fast," Jackson said. "I'd still go to the skating rink for the open sessions and I would just hit hot laps around the track."
Renee Hildebrand took notice. A longtime inline speedskating coach in Ocala, she knew right away that Jackson was in the wrong discipline. After bumping into the young skater's mom, Rita, at a local diner, she suggested Jackson give speedskating a try.
And when she did, Jackson quickly reminded Hildebrand of another young skater who bolted off the starting line – an Ocala girl named Brittany Bowe.
"Brittany was the fastest girl, and then when Erin started, Erin had that same crazy start," Hildebrand said. "She was chasing those big girls down. And they didn’t want to get caught. Nobody wants to get caught by the new beginner kid."
Bowe went off to college at Florida Atlantic, and Jackson soon became one of the best skaters on Hildebrand's Team Florida, now known as Ocala Speed. She won 47 national titles and 12 world championship medals on inline skates, while also being named the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee's female athlete of the year for roller sports in 2012, 2013 and 2015.
Jackson achieved all of this despite "not taking inlining as seriously as I could have," as she put it. Hildebrand said she would often arrive late to practice or leave early in order to fulfill obligations at church or focus on schoolwork.
"What I found out about her is that when she did show up for practice, she was intense, focused and she got a lot out of each practice," Hildebrand said.
While so many aspiring Olympians forgo academics to spend more time training, Jackson took the opposite approach. She put inline skating on the proverbial backburner to focus on pursuing her engineering degree at the University of Florida, where she specialized in materials science.
"She put the effort into school in a way that some athletes don’t," said one of her professors at Florida, Nancy Ruzycki. "She really is a role model in that way."
Ruzycki, who taught Jackson in four courses, said she knew her student competed in inline skating races and would sometimes drive long distances to train after class. But she got the impression that it was all pretty casual.
"Then I looked her up on the internet, and you find out this kid is, like, top," Ruzycki said. "She never talked about it that way."
'Fell in love with the challenge'
By the time she graduated cum laude from Florida, Jackson had already seen two of her former inline teammates – Bowe and Joey Mantia – compete at the Winter Olympics on ice.
Jackson had never seriously considered making that switch herself, in part because she hated the cold and thought training on ice for hours at a time sounded miserable. But when an official with U.S. Speedskating reached out and asked if she'd give it a try, she obliged.
"I thought if I didn't try it now, I'd always wonder could I have been good at this other sport, you know?" Jackson said. "I just fell in love with the challenge of it."
That challenge largely revolved around technique, which is completely different on ice than it is on asphalt or concrete. "The technique that I used on inlines would get me nowhere on ice," Jackson explained.
Though both disciplines require power, speedskating on ice requires competitors to sit in a lower position for the entirety of the race, maintaining sharper angles than they would otherwise need on inline skates.
""It’s hard because a lot of people look at it and go, 'Oh, they just put on different skates and they can just jump right over and be Olympians.' Well, no," said Hildebrand, who has coached inline speedskating since 1987.
Hildebrand held out hope for years that inline speedskating would one day be included in the Summer Olympics, as skateboarding was for the first time at the 2020 Tokyo Games. And had that been the case, she said, Jackson – like Bowe and Mantia – might already have multiple Olympic medals.
Even after Jackson qualified for the 2018 Olympics, and blossomed into the world's top 500-meter speedskater on ice, she said she is still more comfortable on inlines, which she called "my first love on skates."
"I think if inline had been an Olympic sport, we wouldn't have gone looking somewhere else," she said. "But it's not. So we're just very fortunate to have another outlet, another way to kind of get there."
A gift from a friend
Jackson became the first Black woman to compete for Team USA in speedskating when she placed 24th at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. And she seemed on a track to stardom in subsequent years, leading up to Beijing.
Then, at the U.S. Olympic trials in January, disaster struck. It was a simple slip up in a 500-meter race, the type of fluke that rarely ruins Olympic dreams. It cost Jackson only a fraction of a second. But in a sport where winners can be decided by the tip of a blade, it was enough. Jackson finished third at the trials, where only the top two finishers would be guaranteed spots on the Olympic team.
"Pretty stressful. Definitely," she said later. "Stressful is a good word for it."
Jackson thought the rulebook might grant her a chance to skate the race again, but to no avail. She studied the guidelines for quota places, wondering if the U.S. might be awarded a third spot.
Then, in a heartwarming gesture shortly after the slip, Bowe privately informed Jackson that she would relinquish her own spot on Team USA at that distance, if necessary –passing up a chance at a medal in her secondary event so that Jackson could have a medal-winning opportunity of her own.
"In my heart, there was never a question that I would do whatever it took, if it came down to me, to get Erin to skate the Olympics," Bowe said. "No one is more deserving than her."
Jackson later described it as receiving a precious gift from a close friend, whom she first met in Ocala when Jackson was 10 years old.
"She is an amazing person," Jackson said.
The U.S. was later granted an additional quota spot, ensuring that Bowe would be able to compete in the 500 after all – in addition to 1,000 and 1,500, which are her stronger events.
As for Jackson, the means by which she earned her spot in the 500-meter field does not change her approach. After winning four World up races this season, she is focused only on winning gold. That's a lot of pressure to bear, sure. But Jackson relishes it.
"When there's not enough pressure, I feel like I get a little too relaxed," she said. "The more pressure we can put on me, the better."
Contributing: Lori Nickel
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.