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Erin Jackson’s golden moment is a breakthrough for U.S. speedskating and representation

Erin Jackson hoists an American flag after winning the gold medal in the speedskating women's 500-meter race. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
6 min

BEIJING — Brittany Bowe screamed for Erin Jackson. She had enough lungs for all 37.04 seconds of her friend’s golden Olympic skate and left plenty for the celebratory aftermath. She screamed from a bench in the middle of the National Speed Skating Oval, screamed while running to the pads, screamed so loud and for so long, she said, “I think I passed out.”

She probably came to and screamed some more.

Bowe understood the significance of Sunday night, when Jackson reached the crest of a mind-boggling five-year ascent and became the champion she was meant to be. When Bowe gave up her spot last month to make certain Jackson would be an Olympian, her decision transcended friendship and sportsmanship and honored common sense. Bowe knew Jackson belonged here, U.S. trials mishap be damned.

At the speedskating trials, Jackson caught a bad edge, slipped and stumbled during the race. It caused Jackson, the world’s top-ranked woman in the 500 meters, to finish third. Only the top two are guaranteed to go to the Olympics. So Bowe, a fellow Ocala, Fla., native who won the trials, conceded her 500-meter victory so Jackson would be assured placement on the team.

“She just showed the world why she belongs here,” Bowe said of Jackson.

A speedskater’s generous gesture gave her friend a spot on the U.S. Olympic team

Bowe watched a speedskating gem grow up swiftly and do it all as a grown-up, not a precocious teen but an inline skater who didn’t take to competitive speedskating until five years ago, when she was already 24.

Today, Jackson is 29, though you would never know it when you watch her smiling big, talking earnest and giggling while making an admission about her performance: “Being the short-distance athlete I am, I did get a little tired.”

Five years and two Olympics later, Jackson is the best female 500-meter speedskater in the world. She’s also the first Black woman to win an Olympic speedskating medal for the United States. If that’s not enough, she’s a breakthrough victor for a proud U.S. program that hadn’t captured gold since the 2010 Olympics.

An American woman hadn’t won an individual medal, period, since Chris Witty set a 1,000-meter world record while taking the gold in 2002. The struggles were consistent with the woes of the entire U.S. long-track program. Twenty years ago, the Americans won eight medals, three of them gold, in Salt Lake City. Since then, the decline has been steep, culminating in a medal-less showing in 2014 and just one bronze in 2018. The country has experienced quite a slumber within the sport — a charter discipline, one of only six to be featured in every Winter Olympics — that has produced Team USA’s most golds and overall medals.

But all of a sudden, that’s the past. The program can tout Jackson. For speedskating, she is a pioneer and a fixer refinishing an old tradition.

“It’s huge,” said Ryan Shimabukuro, the U.S. speedskating coach. “It’s a momentum change. We’ve taken a lot of punches on the chin the last couple of Olympics.”

It would have been disastrous if Jackson’s slip had cost her this opportunity. But Bowe knows the sport too well. She knows Jackson’s talent too well. And so she wasn’t going to let the best sprinter in the world wait and hope for a quota allocation to gain backdoor entry to the Olympic field. She wanted Jackson to have clarity. Besides, Bowe ended up receiving one of the spots left vacant by other nations. Bowe, who also qualified in the 1,000 and 1,500 meters, finished 16th in the 500. But she was so thrilled for Jackson you would’ve thought she had won gold, too.

“I’m a part of the puzzle, but I want this moment to be about her,” Bowe said.

“Incredible human,” Bowe added, shaking her head in amazement. “Incredible athlete.”

Jackson’s name can be uttered in a sentence with Bonnie Blair now. Blair won the 500 in three straight Olympics, the last coming in 1994, and no American had claimed the gold again until Sunday. In victory, Jackson represents so much to so many. She’s a figure of reclamation, of transformation, of representation. In edging Japan’s Miho Takagi by 0.08 seconds, she also put her name with former bobsledder Vonetta Flowers, who 20 years ago became the first Black athlete from any country to win a Winter Olympics gold medal.

Of the possibility that she can inspire more women like her, Jackson said: “Hopefully, it has an effect. I just hope to be a good example.”

Archives: In Erin Jackson, U.S. speedskating sees a bright glimpse into the future

Inside an arena nicknamed the Ice Ribbon, there was no denying the strength of Jackson’s example. She was electric. Then her calm and humility seemed to make her presence grow. She shared a long hug with Bowe, who is four years older and her role model. Bowe kept expressing how proud she was. Jackson couldn’t stop saying thank you.

“I think I cried immediately,” Jackson said. “A lot of shock, a lot of relief, a lot of happiness.”

In 2018, Jackson finished 24th at the Olympics after just four months as a dedicated speedskater. She was the first Black woman to qualify for the U.S. long-track team, and she reveled in the experience. Because of injuries and the pandemic, she hadn’t enjoyed a linear path over the past four years, but something clicked in November. In the lead-up to the Olympics, she won four of eight World Cup races to earn that No. 1 ranking. When she started winning, she said to herself: “Okay, that’s strange. Let’s see where it goes.”

It led here, to the top, to a podium in which she could let her braids down and light up the building with a smile that matched her performance. On the outside, she looked happy yet mellow. In her mind, however, she had thought bubbles like a comic book character.

“It was ‘Holy crap!’ and ‘Wow!’ and ‘This is awesome!’ ” Jackson said, laughing. “Very simple thoughts. Very simple.”

For several months, it has been unnecessary to overthink Jackson. She is the best. Even when she stumbles, she is the best. Bowe knew, and Bowe didn’t forget. She was the truest ally, one who didn’t abandon Jackson even when it would’ve benefited Bowe.

The belief was worth it. Her friend — her fellow Floridian, her teammate — is the new queen of the 500 meters. Jackson is a new hope for diversity in winter sports. And she’s a savior for American speedskating.

“This is for all of us,” Shimabukuro said of an Olympic champion of immeasurable meaning. “We needed this.”

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