Erin Jackson didn’t let this chance go to waste.
After teammate Brittany Bowe gave up her qualifying spot in the 500-meter speedskating race to ensure Jackson could compete at the Olympics despite a slip during the Olympic trials, the top-ranked sprinter repaid her longtime friend’s selfless gesture by winning a gold medal on Sunday at the National Speedskating Oval.
Skating in the second-to-last heat, Jackson blazed to a 37.04-second finish to become the first U.S. woman to medal in the 500 meters since 1994 and win the United States’ first individual speedskating medal at any distance since Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick took gold and bronze, respectively, in the 1,000 meters in 2010. Jackson, who four years ago became the first Black woman to represent the United States in speedskating at the Olympics, is now the first Black woman to win a speedskating gold medal for the United States.
Japan’s Miho Takagi finished 0.08 seconds behind Jackson for silver and Angeline Golikova of the Russian Olympic Committee (37.21 seconds) took bronze.
Jackson, 29, waited for the final heat, watching the final two competitors race past her as she stood on the opposite end of the oval from the finish line. Her eyes glued on the video screen, Jackson raised her arms in the air when the final times flashed in the arena.
She hugged her coach Ryan Shimabukuro still staring at the video board as if to confirm that the numbers were real, then she sank onto the padded rink wall with her head in her hands. She skated a victory lap, holding an American flag over her head.
Bowe, who was added to the 500-meter race when other countries couldn’t fill their quotas, finished 16th with a time of 38.04 seconds. The three-time Olympian said she screamed so loud cheering for Jackson that she nearly passed out.
“I want this moment to be all about her,” Bowe said. “She’s done this, she went to the start line on her own and she skated the best 500 of her life to be Olympic champion.”
Fellow American Kimi Goetz finished 18th with a time of 38.25 seconds.
Jackson entered the race as the favorite, having won four of the season’s eight World cup events. But after slipping and finishing third at the Olympic trials, Jackson knew the importance of a perfect race when it counted. Going through the satisfaction of a successful season to the devastation of almost missing out on an Olympic spot because of a fluke mistake to the elation of her first Olympic gold medal was a “roller coaster,” Jackson said.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Jackson said, “but I think that makes it even sweeter.”
Only five years ago, Jackson wasn’t even training full time on the ice. The Ocala, Fla., native who has a degree in materials science and engineering from Florida started with inline skating and roller derby before switching to the ice in September 2017. Four months later, she qualified for the Pyeongchang Olympics, where she finished 24th in the 500 meters.
After recently describing Jackson as still in her “infancy” in the sport, Shimabukuro, the U.S. long track speedskating coach, said with a smile, “maybe she skipped elementary school and jumped to college.”
Although hopes for Olympic glory motivated her switch from inline to speedskating on ice, Jackson didn’t think a gold medal was a realistic possibility until five months ago when she won her first World Cup event. The victory on Nov. 12 in Poland was the first time a Black American woman won a speedskating World Cup race.
“Hopefully it has an effect,” Jackson said of her historic gold medal. “Hopefully we can see more minorities, especially in the USA, getting out and trying some of these winter sports. And I always hope to be a good example especially with helping kids see that they don’t have to just choose one between school and sports.”