GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Stories in the Olympics genre, as varied as their characters may be, generally fall into one of a few well-worn categories. There’s the comeback kid, the tragic hero, the unexpected superstar and the been-through-so-much-you’re-just-happy-to-be-here type — and all the variations on those themes.
But the story of American speedskater Erin Jackson — the first African American woman to compete for the United States in long-track speedskating — won’t slide neatly into any of those categories. She didn’t expect to be here. She wasn’t even trying to be here. And because she is here, the future of American speedskating got a little bit brighter.
Jackson, 25, made her only Olympics appearance Sunday evening. She skated to 24th place out of 31 competitors in the women’s 500-meter sprint, the shortest, least technical of the long-track races. Skate as fast as you can. Sprint, don’t glide. Don’t stop until the finish line. Basic, at least relatively speaking.
Nao Kodaira of Japan won gold with a time of 36.94 seconds, with Lee Sang-hwa of South Korea taking silver and Karolina Erbanova of the Czech Republic the bronze. For the United States, Brittany Bowe finished fifth and Heather Bergsma took 11th. Those two skated with chances for a medal, carrying the weight of the U.S. team’s medal drought that stretches back to the 2010 Winter Games. Jackson is still working on the basics.
A year ago at this time, she hadn’t tried speedskating at all. She had won scores of national inline skating titles, competed for roller derby championships and earned a degree in material science from the University of Florida. But none of those provided the challenge the Olympics did. Like Apolo Anton Ohno and current teammates Bowe and Joey Mantia, she considered a move to the ice to reach higher levels of sport than inline skating offered.
So last February, she tried the ice. It didn’t go well. She struggled and stumbled and went back to roller racing for the summer before returning to hone her speedskating skills in Salt Lake City in September. A few months later, she decided to skate in the Olympic trials in Milwaukee, just to see where she stood, to see how much she would have to do to challenge for an Olympic spot in Beijing in 2022.
Jackson had never broken 40 seconds in the 500 (for reference, 30 of 31 skaters broke that number here Sunday night). And the United States already had an established sprinter in Sugar Todd, who competed in the 500- and 1,000-meter races at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Then, suddenly, somehow, at the most remarkable moment, Jackson broke 40 seconds. She beat out Todd. She qualified for the Olympics. Todd didn’t.
Jackson told reporters that she felt for Todd in the aftermath, experienced the guilt of stealing someone else’s dream. Then she panicked.
“My first emotions were like, ‘Holy crap, what’s happening?’ ” Jackson said. “Then I started to get a little stressed out because there were some big life changes coming up I wasn’t ready for. I had a lot of other things planned for this time in my life.”
She had planned to take several roller derby trips with the U.S. National Roller Derby team. She missed the World Cup. She also skates with a Jacksonville, Fla.-based roller derby team and plans to skate the season with them, if on-ice training allows. Then there’s the complication of the cold. Jackson, who is based in Florida, joked — in that half-serious way everyone jokes about unfortunate realities — that she doesn’t like the chill.
When she skated Sunday, her inexperience was evident. She lacked the fluidity of the Norwegian skater next to her. She didn’t look as comfortable in the little moments — stopping to chat with coaches, getting on and off the ice — as the skaters around her who have trained and competed on ovals for years.
Jackson said she needs to learn to stay lower, to handle speed into the turns and even just to glide — something she didn’t have to do in the sprint but a familiar staple of longer speedskating races in which skaters put their hands behind their back and maintain speed, rather than build it.
“She’s one of those naturally gifted people,” said Mantia, who skated on inline teams with Jackson in the past. “She just doesn’t have to work as hard as everyone else to be better than them.”
“I don’t want that to get out!” Jackson joked. “Truthfully, I didn’t train much as an in-liner. But that’s definitely not going to work on the ice. I’m going to have to buckle down and make sure I’m training all the time.”
Once she hones that technique, Jackson said, she hopes to add more distances to her résumé, to build up to compete for real at the 2022 Olympics.
The U.S. women have one race to go in PyeongChang and have not won a medal since Vancouver. Even as Bowe and others intend to compete again four years from now, the idea of a freakishly fast skater on the rise is a welcome one.
“Great future for the sport, great future for the long-track sprint program,” Bowe said of Jackson. “Her projection is high.”
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