Erin Jackson, speed skating 'newbie,' is surprise Olympian
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Erin Jackson is the rawest of Olympic rookies. As a kid careering around roller rinks in Florida, she never dreamed of gold.
She just loved going fast on wheels, earning the well-deserved nickname "Speedy."
Spotted by an inline coach one day, Jackson was soon on a team and spent 15 years piling up titles and traveling the world.
But inline skaters can only go so far in their sport. There is no grand stage like the Olympics.
Last February, Jackson crossed over from inline skating to try the ice for the first time in Salt Lake City. She traveled a well-worn path that had been paved by such inline-to-ice successes as Apolo Ohno, Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia.
Jackson was tabbed to be part of the International Skating Union's Development Transition Program that aims to help athletes from other sports to adapt to speedskating.
"She's one of the most talented girls I know," said Bowe, a longtime friend who skated inline with Jackson in their hometown of Ocala, Florida.
Jackson had been contemplating the change for a while, but wanted to finish college first. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in materials science and engineering and a natural curiosity about technique in a sport where a thousandth of a second can decide a race.
She was already well established on wheels, winning 47 national championships and being named Female Athlete of the Year for roller sports three times.
Blades were a different story. Jackson struggled to adapt to skating on the edge of a 1-millimeter-wide blade. The 25-year-old skater stayed in Salt Lake City for a month, then left to spend the summer competing in inline.
By September, she was back in Utah. She got better every time out, but saved her biggest improvement for just before the U.S. Olympic trials in January. She planned to compete in Milwaukee only as a way to gauge how she was doing, with her long-term plan to qualify for the 2022 Beijing Games.
But she shocked everyone, including herself. Jackson finished third in the 500 meters — consisting of two runs — to claim a spot in the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Her times of 39.04 seconds and 39.22 were her first results under 40 seconds.
"I surprised myself a lot," she said. "I really wasn't expecting any of this, just coming in as a newbie, just trying to do the best I can."
Jackson became the first black woman to compete for the U.S. Olympic long track team.
"I'm happy to be someone kids can look to," Jackson said. "Someone who looks like them."
In sport not known for its diversity, she isn't alone, either. Shani Davis, the first black athlete to earn an individual gold at the Winter Olympics, is skating long track at his fifth Olympics. Maame Biney, who was born in Ghana, is the first black woman to make the U.S. short-track team.
Jackson has been a good sport when people confuse her with Biney, who at 18 is seven years younger.
Jackson makes her Olympic debut on Sunday in the 500 at Gangneung Oval, where the Americans have been kept off the podium in the first seven long-track events of the games.
"I'm just crazy excited," she said. "Really excited to get out there for my race and see how things add up."
She was confined to her room at the athletes village during her first days at the games after getting sick. She passed time binging on the Netflix series "Stranger Things" when her roommates moved out, and she skipped the opening ceremony to rest. Now she's feeling better.
"It's just a matter of making up for the lost time on the ice," she said. "I haven't been out there very long total, like, in my life, so every practice that I lose is just like kind of another step back, just things that I have to re-learn."
Clearly, she's a quick study.
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