BEIJING -- Erin Jackson wasn’t sure she was going fast enough.
Jackson can usually hear the opening split for her 500m race, but the National Speed Skating Oval was strangely noisy.
“So, I was just kind of flying blind,” she said.
She was definitely flying either way.
Some of the noise was coming from Jackson’s friend and U.S. teammate, Brittany Bowe, who had skated earlier. “I screamed so loud I almost passed out,” Bowe said, “Just ‘Go! Go! Go! Go!’”
And then on the backstretch, Jackson had a little bit of a misstep. “It’s really common,” she said. “It wasn’t anything like what happened at Olympic Trials.”
Last month, Jackson had a bobble that nearly cost her a chance to compete at the 2022 Winter Olympics. Bowe, who finished first, relinquished her spot to Jackson, who was third, so the world’s No. 1-ranked 500m skater could have a guaranteed berth at the Olympic Games.
Then an additional spot opened up for Bowe, and after her own race she stayed close to the ice to cheer on Jackson, who shares the same hometown — Ocala, Florida — and to hug her when she finished.
“We cried and she said she’s really proud of me and I said a lot of thank yous,” said Jackson.
That’s because the skater whose Instagram handle is “speedyj” came across the finish line in the penultimate pair with a time of 37.04 seconds, which assured her of making the podium.
After the final pair skated, Jackson became the first individual gold medalist for the United States in long track speed skating since Shani Davis in 2010.
No American woman had won a gold medal since Chris Witty in 2002 and Jackson was the first Team USA woman to win the 500m since Bonnie Blair from 1988-1994.
Jackson, 29, is also the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual event at the Winter Games. Debi Thomas won the figure skating bronze in 1988 and bobsledder Vonetta Flowers in 2002 was the first to do it as part of a team.
“Hopefully it has an effect,” Jackson said, “and we can see more minorities, especially in the USA, getting out and trying some of these winter sports. And I just always hope to be a good example, especially with helping kids see they don’t have to just choose one between schools and sport.”
Her coach, Ryan Shimabukuro, said Jackson “proves there’s no barriers when it comes to diversity. It’s just a matter of following your passion and your heart where it takes you and obviously she’s had a great role model in Shani Davis as well, who led the way in 2006 and 2010, and I think she’s going to inspire a lot of the African American community as well.”
And she’s flipped the script for the beleaguered U.S. Speedskating program. When Jackson hugged Shimabukuro after her victory, he told her, “This was for all of us. We really needed this.” And Jackson replied, “Yeah, we did.”
Team USA went into both the Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games with medal prospects, but was shut out except for a women’s team pursuit bronze in 2018.
“This is huge. It’s a momentum changer,” said Shimabukuro. “For U.S. Speedskating, we’ve taken a lot of punches on the chin the last couple of Olympics, so it’s great that we could celebrate tonight.”
And the skater who broke through is a former inline skating champion and current roller derby player with an engineering degree who didn’t commit to the ice until late 2017. About four months later, Jackson made her first Olympic team, placing 24th.
Shimabukuro said Jackson knows how to glide. “Even though in the beginning it took a while for her to unlearn technique on wheels,” he said, “she immersed herself in anything and everything that it took to apply her skating knowledge to ice.”
The coach said they’re still working on her finer points. “She never came in with an ego, like ‘I’ve already been at the top of this, I’ve got it.’ No. She was very humble, she was willing to start off at square one.”
By the time this season’s World Cup circuit began in November, Jackson was moving quickly around the game board.
After winning her first 500m on the circuit, she said, “I was like ‘OK, that’s strange, let’s see where it goes,’” Jackson said. “Then I won another one. And then I was like, ‘OK, maybe I can do this.’”
She wound up winning four of the eight World Cup races in the 500m.
“She has really, really strong hips and she keeps them really stable and steady when she skates,” said U.S. teammate Kimi Goetz, who placed 18th in the 500m and still has the 1000m to race. “They’re side to side — there’s no up and down — so she’s just putting so much power into the ice. And she’s just super fast.”
But everything almost came to a screeching halt in Milwaukee at the Olympic Trials.
“Our Trials was just crazy,” Bowe said. “And although I won that, I felt everything other than being victorious. The only thing on my mind was getting Erin to the start line here. I’m a part of the puzzle, but I want this moment to be all about her. 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.”
Bowe added that Jackson “showed the world why she deserved to be here.”
Jackson has a photo of her as a youngster with Bowe and Joey Mantia, another 2022 Olympian from Ocala who started out in inline skating.
“At the time when she gave up her spot, she didn’t know we’d be getting a third one, so she made a really big sacrifice for me and I’ll be grateful to her forever,” she said.
While all the other women on the U.S. team had multiple events, Jackson just had the 500m. She had to wait more than two weeks after arriving to hear, “Go to the start.”
“I feel like I’m normally pretty calm and levelheaded for racing, sometimes a little too calm,” Jackson said. “Sometimes my issue is that I can’t get hyped up enough for an event.”
Was she hyped up for this one? “I was about three days ago,” she said with a laugh, “and then it kind of wore off and then today I was just really ready.”
Shimabukuro knew Jackson was ready based on her training. Bowe said she saw no nerves from the 12-time inline world championship medalist.
“She was cool, calm and collected all the way through,” said Bowe, who finished 16th in the 500m to go along with her 10th-place finish in the 1500m. Her signature event is the 1000m later this week.
“This is my third time at the Olympics and I have not had that opportunity to be crowned Olympic champion,” Bowe added, “so I know how hard it is and how much it takes. So for her to be able to achieve that with the pressure she had on her, with the story, with coming in as No. 1 ranked in the world —the level of respect is out of this world.”
During the race, even though Jackson couldn’t hear her time, her opener was 10.3 seconds, “pretty much the fastest she’s ever done,” said Shimabukuro. “I knew we had a chance for the gold. She had a clutch performance, that’s for sure.”
After Jackson crossed the finish line with the fastest time, she knew she’d made the podium, no matter the outcome of the final race. “I was like ‘OK, I’ve at least got a bronze medal at worst,’” Jackson said. “So that was a big relief, but I was like, ‘I came here to win.’”
When the last pair — both World Cup winners — finished with much slower times, Jackson cried immediately with shock, relief and joy. “It was just a big release of emotion,” she said.
She took a victory lap with an American flag — and the past few weeks — billowing behind her. “It’s been like happiness, and then stress and happiness again,” Jackson said. “And now it’s all come together. It’s been a wild ride, but I think that makes it even sweeter.”