MILWAUKEE — Bonnie Blair was the last American woman to win an Olympic medal in the 500-meter. The five-time Olympic gold medalist claimed her third consecutive gold in the 500 at the 1994 Games.
With Blair in the stands at the Pettit National Ice Center — cheering and ringing a cowbell for daughter Blair Cruikshank in her first U.S. Olympic Trials for Long Track Speedskating — Brittany Bowe scored her first win at trials, the 500-meter. Blair is one of Bowe’s role models.
Bowe’s first-heat time of 37.95 was her fastest. She finished over a quarter second ahead of Heather Bergsma (38.24). Friendly rivals who both say they push each other, the two skated together in the final pair.
“Really, really pleased with that performance, really happy with how my opening 100 meters are coming along,” said a visibly relieved Bowe, who spent last season trying to recover from concussion symptoms and the first part of this season recovering from walking pneumonia. “Obviously, we still have a little bit of work to do for that top end speed for the lap. But really, really pleased and happy with two solid 500s today.”
With the 500 win, Bowe now has two events on her 2018 Olympic program in PyeongChang. Bergsma, already on the Olympic team after her 1,000 win on Wednesday, earned a berth in the 500 as well.
Eight men and eight women can qualify for the 2018 U.S. Olympic speedskating team. Bowe and Bergsma, plus Carlijn Schoutens, had already wrapped up three of those spots for the women.
PyeongChang will be the second Games for Bowe, the third for Bergsma.
“I love it,” said Bergsma, when asked if it gets old making an Olympic team. “I’m just as excited as the first time.”
As for Blair Cruikshank, she finished 16th. A 17-year-old high school senior, she has her eye on the 2022 Games.
But the real story of the night happened in the heat before Bowe and Bergsma skated. Newcomer Erin Jackson beat Olympic veteran Sugar Todd for the final podium spot in the 500 — and qualification for the 2018 U.S. Olympic team.
Jackson’s second heat time was 39.04 — down a remarkable two-tenths from her first heat time (in a sport where skaters typically only drop a few hundredths of a second).
She competed at trials in a plain black speedsuit — not a US Speedskating suit like most of her competitors. It was a sign of how new the 25-year-old inline skater is to the ice.
From Ocala, Florida — Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia’s hometown — Jackson has been inline skating for 15 years. She never tried speedskating until last February, when she traveled to Salt Lake City and trained on the ice for a month. She then spent the summer back in the inline skating world.
Jackson is a 10-time medalist at inline world championships and is the 2015 Pan American Games silver medalist in the 500.
After a summer on wheels, she returned to Salt Lake City in late September and resumed speedskating, qualifying for Olympic trials in both the 500 and 1,000 (she finished 12th in that race Wednesday night).
“It’s been a crazy experience,” Jackson said. “A couple weeks ago, I was still in the 40s [seconds in the 500]. I hadn’t even broken 40 yet. It’s all happened really fast. It’s crazy.”
Why did she wait until just recently to try a sport that could take her to an Olympic Games?
Jackson’s inline friends, like Bowe, had transitioned to speedskating already. But Jackson wanted to finish college first. She has a degree in material science engineering from the University of Florida.
“I’ve known Erin since she was a little thing both growing up in Ocala and on the same inline skating team,” said Bowe. “She’s one of the most talented girls I know. I keep telling people, if she gives this thing a shot and stays focused and determined, she’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. She proved herself today that it’s no joke.”
In the first heat, Jackson laid down a time of 39.22, which put her in a surprising third place. Between heats, the other skaters mentioned that she would now switch lanes for the second heat and asked if she preferred to be the inner or outer lanes.
“I’m like I have no idea,” she said with a laugh. “I haven’t been doing it long enough to form a preference. I’m just going out there and skating and seeing what happens.”
What happened was that she dropped another two-tenths of a second from her time and qualified for her first Olympic speedskating team with only four months of experience on the ice.
“She’s doing an amazing job,” said Bergsma. “She’s making big steps. Already from her first one to her second one, two tenths. So it’s incredible to see. I knew she was strong from inline, so as soon as she got the feeling on ice, she’d be there.”
“She’s improving dramatically every time she steps on that ice,” added Bowe. “She’s at a point where she can make those huge gains. So to see that two races in a row out here when the pressure is the highest is really promising for her and the sprint program of Team USA.”
Jackson isn’t sure where her life will go from here. She was supposed to skate in a roller derby world up in February but noted with a laugh that she will have to drop out of that event. She also had planned to return to inline skating in May.
“I don’t even know what to do from here,” she said, wide-eyed but happy. “I don’t know where to go from here.”
To Korea, and the Gangeung Oval, where perhaps Jackson can contend for the gold medal that’s eluded the American women in the 500 for the past 24 years.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.