In speed skater Erin Jackson’s story, here are chapter and verse
There are so many compelling parts of Erin Jackson’s story it is hard to know which to begin with.
Do you start with Jackson being such a good inline skater she was a four-time world medalist named the U.S. Olympic Committee’s female roller athlete of the year three times?
Or her making the 2018 U.S. Olympic team in long track speed skating about five minutes after she shifted from wheels to blades?
(OK, it took her a little longer, but you get the idea.)
Or her being the first Black woman to make a U.S. Olympic team in long track?
Or her doing that despite coming to the 2018 Olympic trials without having met the qualifying time for the ensuing PyeongChang Winter Games.
Or her getting so many college degrees in so many subjects that Jackson jokingly (or not) thinks she should include “school” when asked to list her hobbies?
Or Jackson calling her skating “embarrassing” after getting her first World Cup victory three weeks ago in Poland?
Or winning that season-opening World Cup 500m race after missing the entire 2020-21 international season due to multiple quarantines for Covid close contacts and an eye injury caused when a bungee cord snapped loose?
Or, with that victory in the 500m, becoming the first Black woman to win an individual event in the 36-year-history of the World Cup?
Or doing it after having finished no higher than ninth in her 10 previous World Cup races?
Or her going on to win the next two World Cup 500s, finishing second in the following one and coming into the World Cup that begins Friday at the Utah Olympic Oval near Salt Lake City with the world’s four fastest 500 times this season, three of them new personal bests? And then winning the Friday race with a new personal best that also broke the U.S. record?
Or doing all this when, as her coach, Ryan Shimabukuro, puts it, the 29-year-old from Ocala, Florida, still is in the infancy of her ice skating career?
(And we haven’t even mentioned the roller derby part. She is a master of two wheels, four wheels and blades.)
“When I started out on ice, I was like, ‘I’m a speed skater, and this is speed skating, and why isn’t this coming easier?’ I really struggled at the beginning,” Jackson said in a telephone interview this week. “Meeting this new challenge has been the most rewarding thing.”
Her recent success has not fooled Jackson into thinking she is a refined product technically, as was evident in the “embarrassing” self-description of her technique in a Dutch TV interview after winning the Polish race with a track record time.
“When I look at myself and then look at other skaters, it doesn’t look like I’m skating properly, but if it’s working, then I guess it’s OK,” Jackson said.
“Speed skating has a sort of poetry to the way it looks, the motion of it. I hope to make it look very pretty soon.”
If her poetry in motion still is more doggerel than Lord Byron, that’s not surprising.
“To a casual observer, inline and ice look similar because they are skating movements,” Shimabukuro said via telephone this week. “But there is a big difference in how you deliver power through a blade on ice versus through wheels on cement or concrete. The timing of your push is different, how you apply force is different, your body position is different.”
“Because she had been a roller skater for so long and had also done artistic roller skating, she had a good feeling for being in boots and for moving across a surface. You could tell she was a little hesitant on ice at first but very eager to learn, and she asked good questions. She didn’t just shake her head yes if she didn’t understand but asked me to explain it a different way.”
Once an engineer, always an engineer, especially one who has gone on for associate degrees in computer science and kinesiology.
Jackson, who began inline racing at 9, first got on ice skates at 24 during a brief September 2016 outing with Dutch inline team members at a rink in the Netherlands. Video of that session she posted on Instagram several years later showed her moving on the ice with striking fluidity for a newbie.
Like many champion inliners, including another Ocalan, Brittany Bowe, who has won multiple world titles on both blades and wheels, Jackson would be drawn to try ice skating by the lure of the sport’s Olympic presence.
When she took the next step by joining the US Speedskating program designed to transition successful inliners into ice skaters, Jackson said she turned down two job offers that would have used her materials engineering degree (Dean’s List) from the University of Florida.
“It was kind of a tough decision, but I knew if I didn’t try ice skating then, when would I ever get a chance to do it?” she said.
Jackson went to Salt Lake City in February 2017, spent a couple months training to ice skate, returned to inline and roller derby that summer, then went back to Utah for a four-month block of training leading to the 2018 U.S. trials.
Nearly all speed skaters use cycling as cross training. Jackson never had been on a road bike until going to Utah, and the unfamiliarity led to what she said were multiple crashes (none serious). She also never had done weightlifting before.
“I had to learn all the techniques for lifting,” she said.
Shimabukuro, about to coach in his fifth Olympics, said the goal for Jackson’s first season was about gaining experience from competing in the U.S. trials and getting a program underway for the 2022 Olympics. “There was no pressure on her, but she is definitely a game-day athlete,” he said.
So she unexpectedly made the 2018 Olympics by finishing third in the 500, recording personal bests in both races.
“In 2018, I didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t know how I found myself in that situation,” she said. “It was kind of a whirlwind. Everything seemed to happen very quickly and then I found myself at the Olympics.
She finished 24th of 31 in the 500 in South Korea, more than two seconds (a light-year at that distance) behind winner Nao Kodaira of Japan. By the 2020 World Single Distance Championships, she was seventh in the 500, less than .6 behind winner Kodaira. This season, Jackson has beaten Kodaira in three of the four World Cup races and finished just .15 behind her in the other.
“This year I’m coming in with a lot more confidence,” Jackson said. “I’m starting to feel more comfortable on the ice and in what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Her timetable accelerated after losing most of last season to the pandemic and the eye injury. Her goal for 2020-21 had been to be consistently in the top five with a few podium finishes and for this season to be consistently on the podium with a couple wins.
“Skipping last season, I had to skip that goal too and set my sights on the next,” she said. “Because I didn’t race last season, I didn’t know where I stood in the world. It was surprising and really awesome for me to pull out a couple wins right at the beginning.”
That all her races so far have been at sea level bodes well for Beijing, where the oval also is at sea level. The world’s fastest times – including Jackson’s entire top 15 – now are all recorded at altitude (the Utah Olympic Oval is at 4,669 feet), but some skaters don’t adapt as well to the lower speeds in racing at sea level.
“When I first got on the ice, I was way better at sea level because I wasn’t too skilled a skater, just relying on power and raw speed,” Jackson said. “Now I’m getting a little better at the finesse part and having more success at altitude.”
Shimabukuro said her times this weekend may not be eye-catching because the long trackers are in the midst of a heavy workload block as they gear toward the 2022 Olympics, where the women’s 500 is not until the 10th day (February 13).
Except Jackson continues to defy expectations. She won Friday’s 500 on the Utah Olympic Oval in 36.80 seconds, nearly three-tenths of a second under her previous personal best (37.08) and one-tenth under the U.S. record (36.90) set by Heather Bergsma in 2013.
The U.S., an Olympic power in long track speed skating for nearly all the Winter Games from 1972 through 2010, won no medals in 2014 and just one bronze (in women’s team pursuit) in 2018. Jackson, Bowe, 33, and Joey Mantia, 35, another Ocala-bred former inliner, all should be medal contenders in Beijing.
When her competitive days end, Jackson hopes to combine all her academic interests into a career as a bio mechanist, perhaps in research and development. As a materials engineering student, she worked on designing ceramics for dental uses.
Jackson plans to continue ice skating at least until the 2026 Olympics, although she may return to both inline and roller derby at times in the upcoming years. She has done neither in a couple years, partly because competition in both sports has been shut down for some or all of that time by the pandemic.
Shimabukuro closely monitors her racing load because Jackson herniated three discs in her lower back in 2019. That is why she only skates the 1000m occasionally for now. Her entire focus for Beijing is on the 500.
“If my body is holding up after that (2026), I would like to go for another four,” she said.
Jackson understands how much her presence in the sport can encourage other people of color to try it.
“That’s really important to me,” she said. “There isn’t a whole lot of diversity in the Winter Games, and visibility has a big impact on that.
“You hear the argument, `There’s nothing holding back people of color from doing these winter sports.’ Of course not, but like with Sally Ride (the first U.S. woman in space), there was nothing holding back women from studying science and space exploration, but once she became the first, the numbers of young girls interested in space skyrocketed. I hope I can do that for someone.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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