By Paul Newberry | The Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) — Erin Jackson has never viewed herself as some sort of trailblazer. She just likes to skate really, really fast, whether it’s on wheels or blades.
Yet the 29-year-old from balmy Ocala, Florida knew this moment was special, her chance to really make an impact on the generations that follow.
She’ll forever be known as the first Black woman to win a speedskating medal at the Winter Olympics — and a gold one, at that.
“Hopefully, this has an effect,” Jackson said. “Hopefully, we’ll see more minorities, especially in the USA, getting out and trying these winter sports.”
Jackson won the 500 meters Sunday with a time of 37.04 seconds, giving the American speedskating program its first medal of the Beijing Games and first individual medal since 2010.
But this was much more than a needed boost to a sport that has produced more medals than any other for the U.S. in the history of the Winter Games.
The 29-year-old Jackson, a former inline skater who switched to the ice shortly before the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, joined fellow American Shani Davis as the only Black athletes to win long-track speedskating medals at the Olympics.
Now, she wants others to follow their path into a sport that draws scant attention in the United States.
“I just hope it will do something for the sport,” she said. “I always try to be a good example.”
The silver went to Miho Takagi of Japan, while Angelina Golikova of the Russian team took the bronze.
Jackson’s gold came after she slipped at the U.S. trials and shockingly finished third, putting her spot on the Olympic team in jeopardy.
But teammate Brittany Bowe, another Ocala skater who finished first at the trials, gave up her spot in the 500 to ensure Jackson would get to compete in Beijing.
“She made a really big sacrifice for me,” Jackson said. “I’ll be grateful to her forever.”
As it turned out, the Americans received a third slot in the 500 when the final allocations were made, so Bowe got to skate as well. She finished 16th.
The two close friends embraced after Jackson clinched the gold.
“She hugged me and we cried,” the winner said. “She said she’s really proud of me and I said a lot of thank yous.”
Jackson skated in the next-to-last of 15 pairs with Takagi’s time of 37.12 — set about a half-hour earlier in the fourth pairing — in her sights.
She didn’t think at all about that slip at the U.S. trials.
“It’s not something to really focus on,” Jackson said. “That was a fluke.”
Jackson bolted off the line and was under Takagi’s time as she veered powerfully into the first turn. She kept up her speed through the crossing straight and into the final turn, swinging both arms furiously as she came to the finish of speedskating’s shortest race.
As soon as her skates crossed the line, Jackson’s head turned toward the scoreboard.
She broke into a big smile when she saw the “1” beside her name. Her coach, Ryan Shimabukuro, pumped his arms and slapped hands with her as she glided by.
There was still one pairing left, but Jackson knew she could do no worse than bronze.
A few minutes later, the gold was hers.
“You’re an Olympic champion,” Shimabukuro told her.
Jackson sat on the padding along the infield, shedding a few tears with her head bowed.
She was no doubt reflecting, too, on her remarkable journey.
The inline and roller derby skater knew she would have to trade her wheels for blades if she wanted to go for Olympic glory.
Making the switch just months before the Pyeongchang Games, she was such a fast study that she earned a spot on the U.S. team. She finished 24th in the 500, but it was clear that she had barely tapped into her potential.
During the current World Cup season, Jackson suddenly emerged as one of the world’s best sprinters. She won four of eight 500 races — the first Black woman to earn one of those titles, as well — and came to the Olympics as one of the favorites.
“When I won the first World Cup, I was like, ‘OK that’s strange. Let’s see where it goes,’” Jackson recalled. “Then I won another and I was like, ‘Well, maybe I can do this.’”
She lived up to the billing in Beijing, becoming the first American woman to win an individual Olympic medal since 2002.
“Words cannot explain how proud I am of her,” Bowe said. “I knew she had the chance to do something really special, and she just showed the world why she deserved to be here.”
Jackson grabbed an American flag and did a victory lap around the Ice Ribbon oval, the stars and stripes fluttering above her head.
“It’s been a wild ride,” she said, “but that makes it even sweeter.”