DeAira Jackson poses for a photo after winning "Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful" in July 29, 2019 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
DeAira Jackson knew nothing about rugby. But she did know football.
So when she was picked to try rugby as part of the sport-specific testing in Season 3 of “Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful,” the sport, she reasoned, was pretty much just football without the pads.
“I’d never played it, I’d never touched a rugby ball; I knew that it was a sport, but I didn’t see myself playing it,” she said. “Then when I started playing my whole opinion on it changed. It’s nowhere near football without pads. There’s nothing else like it.”
The 17-year-old soccer and track and field athlete from Fontana, California, is learning more and more about the sport after being selected to train with the USA Rugby national team last summer. She was one of six athletes chosen from the talent-identification competition to continue on with training in an Olympic sport, and the opportunity has shifted where she sees herself in five years.
“I see myself getting a gold medal at the 2024 Olympics, so it’ll be 2025 by then and I’ll already have it,” said Jackson, who hopes to be a pediatrician one day. “I’ll be in grad school, have my college degree and be training full-time with USA Rugby. And that’s just about it.”
If those seem like lofty goals, it only takes a short conversation with Jackson to believe if anyone can do it, she can.
Jackson started playing soccer when she was just 4 years old. Over time she also picked up everything from volleyball to basketball to cheerleading, but in middle school she started doing track and field, and that, along with soccer, would last throughout her high school career. Blessed not only with natural ability and height — she’s 6 feet tall and was always above average for her age, she said — and a strong work ethic, Jackson landed on many a post-season honors list as a goalkeeper and also won titles in hurdles and sprints.
Recruited to play college soccer, she committed to Cal State Fullerton and starts there this semester after graduating early from high school.
“I went to summer school so I wouldn’t be bored at home,” she said.
Jackson added one more sport to her resume before her high school career ended, however, joining the football team as the punter and kicker this past fall.
“I was the very first female varsity player (at Rancho Cucamonga High School,)” she said.
Her mother, Regina, had always encouraged her to play sports because sports teach discipline, how to work with others and self-confidence while also creating more well-rounded individuals. Football was a different story, though.
“Believe it or not I told her initially that she could not play because I didn’t want her to get hit and get hurt,” Regina Jackson said. “DeAira’s such a determined little person, however, that one day I was looking for her after school and she said she was at football practice. I was like, really? OK, just don’t let them tackle you.”
Jackson and her mom have shared a motto throughout her athletic career: Go hard or go home. It started when DeAira was about 6 or 7 years old and joined the traveling team for soccer, she said, and it served as a reminder that home’s always going to be there, but if you don’t go hard you’re going home empty-handed.
It was a motto she drew on during the Next Olympic Hopeful competition. Jackson applied after seeing an ad in her Instagram feed, and when she learned a few months later that she’d been selected as one of 50 finalists she almost couldn’t remember what for.
As one of the youngest competitors at the selection camp this past summer, it was a bit intimidating showing up at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, alongside the other hand-picked finalists, she said.
“You sit in the dining hall and people are saying, ‘I trained this way for this,’ and ‘I did this to get ready,’ and I was like, ‘I was playing soccer a week ago then I hopped on a plane,’” she said.
Jackson could tell that she was making an impression as the competition continued, however, based not only on her performance in the rigorous testing but also the questions the coaches were asking and some of the things they wanted to see her do in rugby.
It was emotional making the video call to tell her mother she won.
“I didn’t expect to win,” Jackson said. “When I told her, seeing how proud she was, made me feel 10 times happier in the moment. It was the best thing telling her, especially because she wasn’t there so she didn’t know how the whole process of the show was going. Seeing her cry made me more emotional.”
Jackson went to two training camps in the fall with USA Rugby and was put on the U18 high school All-American team. She started at wing in her first game ever in December against Canada.
“It was the best time of my life,” she said.
Applications are now being accepted for Season 4 of “Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful,” and anyone interested can apply at TeamUSA.org/NextOlympicHopeful.
Jackson had this advice for anyone competing: “Believe in yourself and don’t underestimate yourself going in,” she said. “Remember what you have to offer and leave it all on the table.”
In other words, go hard or go home.