BEIJING – Erin Jackson lifted off the line, her powerful legs attacking the ice, her fate awaiting her at the end of a frantic race around the beautiful Beijing speed skating oval.
She didn’t see herself as some sort of pioneer. She didn’t think about the slip that could have snatched her spot on the US Olympic team. She simply wanted to go faster Everyone.
“I came here to win,” said the 29-year-old.
Jackson became the first black woman to medal in speed skating at the Olympics – and it was the best color of them all.
“A lot of shock, a lot of relief and a lot of happiness,” Jackson said after his 500-meter victory.
It was an immensely personal moment for a champion in-line skater from sweet Ocala, Florida, who traded her wheels for blades to pursue an unlikely Olympic dream.
But it meant so much more than that.
Jackson’s skin color makes her an anomaly on the speed skating ring. She joined fellow American Shani Davis as the only black athlete to win long track medals at the Olympics.
“I just hope it does something for the sport,” Jackson said. “I hope more people will see this and be like, ‘Ohhh, maybe I should try some of these winter sports.'”
Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis was among those who praised Jackson’s groundbreaking victory.
“Congratulations @ErinJackson480!!” Davis wrote on Twitter. “You are a superior athlete!!”
Back in Florida, Jackson’s longtime online coach, Renee Hildebrand, encouraged her at an early morning watch party hosted by one of his roller sports sponsors, Bont.
Hildebrand also hopes Jackson’s win will bring much-needed diversity to skating, whether it’s wheels or blades.
“She’s a fantastic role model,” Hildebrand said in a phone interview. “Maybe little girls and little boys who aren’t rollerbladers or ice skaters will see her and say, ‘Hey, people of my color are here. She looks like me.'”
The coach noted the impressive accomplishments of Davis, who won two gold and two silver medals at the Olympics, and now Jackson.
“There aren’t a lot of African Americans in speed skating, but the ones that have been are really, really good,” Hildebrand said. “If others come, they will be good.”
Jackson won with a time of 37.04 seconds, giving the US speed skating program its first Beijing Games medal, its first individual medal since 2010 and its first victory in the women’s 500m since Bonnie Blair in 1994.
Jackson’s gold came after she slipped at US trials and finished a shocking third, jeopardizing his spot on the Olympic team.
But teammate Brittany Bowe, another skater from Ocala who finished first in trials, gave up her spot in the 500m to ensure Jackson could compete in Beijing.
“She made a really big sacrifice for me,” Jackson said. “I will be forever grateful to him.”
It turned out the Americans got a third-place finish in the 500m when the final allocations were made, so Bowe was able to skate as well. She finished 16th.
The two close friends hugged after Jackson struck gold.
“She hugged me and we cried,” the winner said. “She said she was really proud of me and I said a lot of thanks.”
Jackson skated in the penultimate of 15 pairs with the time of 37.12 – set about half an hour earlier in the fourth pair by Japan’s Miho Takagi – in his sights.
She did not think about this error at all during the American trials.
“It’s not something to really focus on,” Jackson said. “It was a stroke of luck.”
Jackson darted off the line and essentially won the gold medal in the first 100 yards, before rounding the first corner. His opening time was 10.33 seconds, compared to Takagi’s 10.41.
It was also the margin at the end.
“When it comes to the 500, it’s a matter of hundredths and sometimes thousandths of a second,” Jackson’s coach Ryan Shimabukuro said when she’s on the ice. “I knew she had the speed and it was going to come down to the first game. When I saw she opened in 10.3, which is about the fastest she’s ever done, I knew we had a shot at gold.
Jackson maintained his speed through the first corner, down the crossing straight and into the final corner, even though each stride brought more and more pain. Both arms swung furiously as she raced down the home stretch of the shortest race in speed skating.
As soon as his skates crossed the line, Jackson’s head turned to the scoreboard.
She grinned when she saw the “1” next to her name, her time just 0.08 faster than Takagi’s. Shimabukuro pumped her arms and slapped Jackson’s hands as she slipped.
There were still a pair to skate, but Jackson knew she couldn’t do worse than bronze.
A few minutes later, the gold was hers.
“You are an Olympic champion,” Shimabukuro told her.
Jackson sat on the padding along the infield, shedding a few tears with her head bowed.
She was no doubt also reflecting on her remarkable journey.
Switching from rollerblading to ice just months before the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, Jackson was such a quick study — she has, after all, an engineering degree from the University of Florida — that she landed a spot. on the American team. She finished 24th in the 500m, but it was clear she had barely lived up to her potential.
In the current World Cup season, Jackson suddenly emerged as one of the best sprinters in the world. She won four of the eight 500m races – the first black woman to also win one of those titles – and came into the Olympics as a favourite.
“When I won the first World Cup, I was like, ‘OK, this is weird. Let’s see where it goes,'” Jackson recalled. “Then I won another one and I was like :” Well, maybe I can do it. “”
She lived up to the bill in Beijing, becoming the first American to win an individual medal in speed skating since 2002.
“Words can’t explain how proud I am of her,” Bowe said. “I knew she had the chance to do something really special, and she just showed the world why she deserved to be here.”
Jackson grabbed an American flag and took a victory lap around the Ribbon of Ice oval, the stars and stripes floating above his head.
“It’s been a wild ride,” she said, “but that makes it even sweeter.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and find his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
More AP Winter Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.