Ryan Shimabukuro wasn’t surprised when Brittany Bowe made a sacrifice that launched a thousand Twitter responses. Not only was he not surprised that the three-time Olympian would forfeit her Olympic position in the 500 meters to teammate Erin Jackson after an uncharacteristic slip from the world’s top sprinter, the U.S. speedskating coach expected Bowe to do it.
“It’s just in her DNA,” said Chancellor Dugan, Bowe’s former college basketball coach.
With a mix of compassion and competitiveness that earned the respect of her Olympic peers, Bowe carried the flag for the United States during the opening ceremony and is ready to take center stage as a favorite to earn her first individual medal in her signature 1,000-meter event Thursday at the National Speed Skating Oval.
When Jackson slipped during the 500-meter Olympic trials race and finished third, Bowe, who had already qualified for the Olympics in the 1,500- and 1,000-meter races, forfeited her spot in the sprint distance. She knew Jackson had a chance to win gold. The 29-year-old was the world’s No. 1-ranked skater in the 500 and proved it Sunday when she became the first Black American woman to win an Olympic speedskating medal.
Bowe, 33, was one of her loudest supporters at the track.
“I want this moment to be about her,” said Bowe, who raced in the event when other countries failed to fill their quotas. Bowe finished 16th of 30 skaters.
The selfless gesture came as no surprise to Dugan, who coached Bowe at Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton. Bowe was a three-year starter and captain for the Owls and ranks eighth in the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,062 points after graduating in 2010. Dugan remembered Bowe sacrificing her time to come in before practice or stay late to shoot with and mentor younger teammates.
Dugan, now the coach at Bellarmine in Louisville, Ky., recalled a story from Carla Stubbs, a fellow guard, who saw Bowe running across the dormitory lawn at 3 a.m. during the first week on campus. Stubbs, who was in the same freshman class, thought she would stay away from the intense competitor.
But a few days later, Stubbs saw a softer side when Bowe spotted Stubbs and her friends walking by. Bowe offered up her car, not even knowing if the fellow freshman had a driver’s license. After a day at the movies, Stubbs went to return the keys. Bowe insisted Stubbs keep the car to drive her friends back to Miami instead of taking a two-hour train ride.
Bowe, who was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 2019, credited her experience as an NCAA athlete for building her “back bone.”
“Your coach is probably going to be the hardest person on you in your entire life,” Bowe said in a video conference. “They’ll dig your grave. They’ll pick you back up out of your grave. My four years of playing basketball really taught me how to be resilient and overcome obstacles and just be a team player.”
The 5-foot-7 point guard was an unquestioned leader, but she wasn’t always easy to coach.
As a freshman, Bowe was “hard-headed,” Dugan said. The coach shared that trait and they butted heads early on. They had to learn the hard way how to communicate. But they also both wanted to win.
“She always had a great motor and wanted to be the best at whatever she did,” Dugan said. “I’m so proud of her. She told all of us that she was going to be in the Olympics, and she made it come true.”
Bowe’s pursuit of Olympic glory began in 2010 when she switched to the ice from inline speedskating, which she started at 8 years old in Ocala, Fla. The city, about 80 miles northwest of Orlando, doesn’t even have a year-round ice rink, but it has turned into an unlikely hotspot for Olympic speedskaters thanks to a pipeline of inline skaters.
Bowe, Jackson and three-time Olympian Joey Mantia all began as inline skaters in Ocala. They dominated on the world stage — Bowe and Mantia have 36 world championship titles combined — before switching to the ice in search of Olympic gold.
Bowe, whose busy schedule in Beijing includes individual races in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 in addition to the team pursuit, made her Olympic debut in 2014 with the four events. Her best finish was sixth in the team pursuit. She earned her first medal, a bronze, in team pursuit in 2018 but finished 0.38 seconds off the podium in the 1,000 meters.
With an individual gold medal still missing, Bowe said it was “never a question in my mind that I was going for Beijing.”
Seeing her training partner win an Olympic gold only seemed to motivate Bowe more. Now on her third Olympics, Bowe has yet to be crowned champion, so she knew how hard and how much work it took to reach the top step of the podium, she said. That realization only made Bowe more proud for her friend.
After Jackson won gold, she cried onto Bowe’s shoulder and thanked her.
“I’ve looked up to Brittany ever since I was kid,” Jackson said before Games. “She’s always been a great person, a great athlete and just having her here as a trailblazer for me on the ice has been great too.”
Bowe said she blacked out during Jackson’s race. She couldn’t recall where she was standing as she watched her teammate race toward history. She started on the bench and somehow found her way to the padded wall, where she greeted Jackson with a hug.
“This is your moment,” said Bowe, who is happy to wait another day for hers to come.