Standing atop the podium, Erin Jackson was able to keep it together for the first half minute of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” By the rocket’s red glare, though, it was too much.
Jackson, at 29 a newly crowned and historic Olympic speed skating champ, had to cover her face, if only for a moment. And then she was back, stoic as ever, for the anthem’s final verse.
The sequence lasted only a few moments longer than the one just a day earlier, when Jackson charged 500 meters around the oval at the “Ice Ribbon” venue in 37.04 seconds. In doing so she not only became the first American woman to win Olympic long track gold in two decades, but she also became the first Black woman to win an individual gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games.
Life moves fast for Olympians, especially in speed skating. Either moment could have been missed with an extended glance to the phone, or a quick trip to the fridge. But Jackson’s gold medal was a culmination of a long, and hardly certain, journey.
“It’s been a big roller coaster,” she said. “There’s been happiness, stress, happiness. It’s been a wild ride, but this makes it even sweeter.”
The Winter Games, founded in 1924, haven’t exactly been known for their diversity.
It wasn’t until 1988 that U.S. figure skater Debi Thomas broke through as the first Black athlete to win a Winter Olympic medal, and it took another 14 years for American bobsledder Vonetta Flowers to become the first Black gold medalist.
Jackson’s hopes of joining that club were hardly boosted by growing up in Central Florida. Her hometown of Ocala doesn’t even have a year-round ice rink.
Instead she got her start as an inline skater, first doing an inline version of figure skating before transitioning to inline speedskating, with some roller derby on the side. It wasn’t until she was well into her 20s, and a multi-time inline national champion, that she pursued the now established wheels-to-ice pathway.
Along the way, she’s also made no secret of her top priority: school. Jackson has already earned a materials science and engineering degree from the University of Florida, plus an associate’s degree in computer science, with another one in the works. She’d still be taking classes now if her Olympic speed skating career didn’t take up so much time.
“She went to the University of Florida, and she never went to a football game. Like, what?” her cousin joked to Sports Illustrated earlier this year. “I would say she’s a pretty big nerd.”
What truly sets her apart, though, is what she can do on the ice.
Jackson has made it look easy at times, such as when she qualified for her first Olympic team in 2018 just months after formally starting to train on ice. The first Black woman to make Team USA in the sport, she hardly looked like a future champion in PyeongChang, South Korea, finishing 24th out of 31 skaters in her signature 500-meter race. Those Games were about potential, though, and Jackson was bursting with it.
In 2020, Toyota brought Jackson into its roster of sponsored Olympic and Paralympic athletes, providing more stability as she worked toward realizing that potential. By the fall of 2021, it arrived. In November, Jackson won a 500-meter race in Poland, becoming the first Black woman to win a speedskating world cup race. Soon she won another, and then two more. By the Olympic Trials in January, she was the world’s top-ranked skater at the distance, suddenly being talked about as a bona fide medal contender at the Winter Games.
Those hopes were briefly dashed at the Trials in Milwaukee, when Jackson caught her skate in a fluke mistake down the backstretch and finished third in the 500. Team USA had only qualified two Olympic spots in the event. Yet in a stroke of sportsmanship, Brittany Bowe, a fellow Ocala native who had made the wheels-to-ice transition long before Jackson, relinquished her spot in the 500. Bowe, already a two-time Olympian and multi-time world champion at the 1,000- and 1,500-meter distances, said she wanted the best skater to race at the Winter Games.
“Erin has earned her right to be on this 500-meter team,” Bowe said at the time. “She’s ranked No. 1 in the world. No one is more deserving than her to get an opportunity to bring Team USA home a medal.”
As it turned out, the U.S. ended up getting a third spot in the 500 when another country was unable to fill its quota, so Bowe was able to compete in that event after all (she finished 16th). The significance of her gesture, however, set the tone for the Olympics.
“When she first told me she would have my back I hugged her and hugged her, and as I hugged her, I was trying not to cry,” Jackson said. “It was a flood of emotions, where you don’t really know what you feel.”
And just a month later, Jackson lived up to all expectations. The Floridian exploded around the Olympic oval, holding off the silver medalist Miho Takagi of Japan by a mere 0.08 seconds.
“I cried immediately, it was just a big release of emotion,” Jackson said. “A lot of shock, a lot of relief and a lot of happiness.”
The speed skating world has known of Jackson for years. The 2022 Olympics performance put her on another level, making her a shining example of the modern, more diverse Winter Games that the International Olympic Committee is trying to project.
“I hope I can be an example,” Jackson said. “I would love to see more people of color in all the winter sports. It helps to have some visibility out there, to be able to see other people like you doing something maybe you’d never thought about doing before.”