Quick Study

Quick Study

After a mere four months of training as a speedskater, Erin Jackson somehow beat out veteran racers for a spot on Team USA. Can she now shock the world in Pyeongchang?

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Erin Jackson, 25, pedals a stationary bicycle as Kelly Clarkson's voice thunders from Milwaukee's Pettit National Ice Center loudspeakers: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Jackson sits upright, a bruised banana in her pocket for later. Her frame is petite, with thick quads tapering to improbably narrow, practically Victorian ankles as she spins round and round, her square jaw set with some interior determination.

Twenty minutes later, warmed up, Jackson heads to practice with her U.S. Speed­skating long-track team. She wriggles into her skin suit, yanking it up inch by inch. Allergic to the rubber, she scratches a shoulder, tugs the zipper, then throws her shoulder-length braids into a loose bun and stretches her hood over her head. "How's my hair look?" she jokes, as she plods across the mats on her blades, meeting the ice with a single push that sends her gliding out of reach with the smoothness of butter spreading across a hot pan.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In February 2017, Jackson was a newbie crossover from in-line, trying speedskating for the first time in Salt Lake City at the urging of Team USA recruiter Chris Needham, who'd had his eye on her. "The one person I wanted from in-line was her," he recalls. A 15-year racing veteran with 47 national championships, Jackson was named Female Athlete of the Year for Roller Sports three times and earned MVP honors in roller derby. Even so, "no one was paying attention to Erin," Needham says. "The assumption was that if she'd wanted to cross over, she would have already."

U.S. speedskater Erin Jackson switched from inline to ice only a few months ago, but now she's preparing to compete at the Winter Olympics.

Over the years, in-line has become a de facto feeder school for Olympic speedskaters, producing stars such as Apolo Ohno and Brittany Bowe. Like them, Jackson craved an Olympic medal -- an accolade as yet unavailable to in-liners -- but she wanted to finish college first. She was 24 and a recent materials science and engineering graduate of the University of Florida when Needham got in touch and suggested she give ice a try.

So Jackson traveled to the Utah Olympic Oval. It was the second time her feet had hit ice -- the first was a 2016 outing with friends who were "too busy laughing at me to give me any pointers," Jackson says. "I was Bambi on ice. I didn't know how to push or where to push." There's a video of her inauspicious debut. "In it, she literally can't skate," Needham recalls, laughing. "I remember thinking, 'Uh-oh.'"

Jackson was hardly better in Utah. Put in a fundamentals class, she struggled not to skate on the flat of the blades, to trust the edges. Rubber wheels grip the surface. Blades, not so much. The precariousness of ice carries with it the same perverse thrill one gets peering over the ledge of a tall building, the instinctive recognition that it would take so little for things to go horribly wrong. Speedskating is racing along that ledge at 30 mph. It's also the miracle of traveling 100 meters in eight anaerobic strokes, merging grace with explosiveness, ballet on a 1-millimeter-wide blade.

"I came into this sport with the mindset of, 'I've been skating my whole life,'" Jackson says. "Then I was like, 'I'm not good and it's really frustrating.'"

"Speedskating breaks potential competitors," explains Needham, a long-track veteran who was hired in 2016 to find the equivalent of a million-dollar arm. "You watch on TV and it looks so effortless. But we've had incredible athletes come and try training and they quit."

Jackson did not quit. She stayed in Utah a month, then left to compete in in-line for the summer. No one was sure she'd return. But come fall, she did. Her coach, Ryan Shimabukuro, describes Jackson then as "timid, trying to find her place," but notes she improved in every training block. "She had to learn, 'If I do less, I'll actually go faster.'" Jackson also posed questions. A lot of questions.

"I didn't realize until Ryan mentioned it, but I guess I'm always asking about technique. I like breaking it down in different ways, maybe sometimes overthinking certain movements. I'm analytical."

Jackson's engineering degree and natural inquisitiveness made for a good marriage with her new sport, one known to be cripplingly technical.

"There are so many calculations that go on in the athlete's head," Needham says. "It's crazy-making." When the margin of victory is a thousandth of a second, 10 times faster than the blink of an eye, it's hard not to lose your mind. Still, Jackson persisted, approaching the problem like an equation to be solved, recircuiting decades of in-line muscle memory.

“Speedskating breaks potential competitors. ... We've had incredible athletes come and try training and they quit.”

Team USA recruiter Chris Needham

One day in Salt Lake, Needham spied a skater whizzing past out of the side of his eye. "I was like, 'Who is that?'" After a beat, he realized it was Jackson. Her rapid progress continued, Jackson growing stronger, quicker. "And then," says Shimabukuro, "one week before the Olympic trials, she skated a big jump in her time. She'd never skated below 11 seconds in the 100, and the last week during simulations she did a 10.8."

Jackson attended the January trials in Milwaukee solely as a way to check her progress, she says, her eyes set on the prize of 2022's Winter Games. She told a friend she'd feel grateful to make the top 10. "Erin didn't know how good she could be," Needham says.

Then came the trials, and everyone found out.

Her first heat she skated better than she ever had, finishing in 39.22. "I remember looking at her as the times kept going up and we were like ... what?" Needham says. "I thought she was going to be top five."

After the first round, Jackson's friends starting jumping up and down in the stands. "Like, 'Oh my god, you could make the Olympic team,'" Jackson recalls. She stayed circumspect. "We had two rounds. Nothing is set in stone after the first." Jackson opted not to watch the other competitors. She didn't want to excite herself, get carried away, lose focus. "I was thinking, 'I have to be able to replicate my performance. It can't just be one and done.'"

Her second race was against Sochi Olympian Sugar Todd, who'd skated 38.6 in a previous event. No one viewed Jackson -- who'd never even approached that time, who'd been training on ice a total of four months -- as a true threat. And yet, in the last stretch, she began to pull away from Todd.

Watching in disbelief, race commentators leaped from their seats, shouting with horse race mania, "It's Jackson and Todd, Jackson and Todd!" until it was Jackson who slid over the finish line at 39.04, winning third place and a spot on the Olympic team. The astonishing showing stunned everyone, Jackson most of all.

"Holy crap, what's happening?" she thought at the time.

Jackson doesn't remember the post-victory interview. At home that night, she developed a migraine, then insomnia. The next day, guilt and mild panic descended. "It hit me that everything was changing and I wasn't really prepared," she says. Her heart ached for Todd. "She expected a spot. I mean, I know I earned it. But I still felt bad. We were both blindsided."

Erin Jackson shaved a half-second off her time roughly every two weeks before the U.S. trials in January.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In a blink of an eye, Jackson went from relative obscurity to basking in a global spotlight. The engineer in her had a plan. Then the athlete in her introduced a new one.

After the trials, Jackson sped down to her native Florida to regroup over breakfast with her father. He told her how all his friends had seen her picture in the papers. Jackson was moved to see her dad excited, something she didn't experience often.

"He was the first person I called when I made the team. And he said, 'So you went pretty fast, huh?' The next question was, 'What do you do now?' And I'm like, 'I don't know!'"

Jackson was raised by her mother, Rita, a pharmacy technician, and her father, Tracy, a fire truck mechanic. Though she ran track in high school for two years, Jackson was more into math and chemistry.

"I was a big nerd. I carried around workbooks and a dictionary everywhere I went," she says amiably over a dinner of soup and soft pretzels at a beer haus near the Olympic team lodging. Jackson wanted to be a scientist, to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather, an aerospace engineer. "I was a smart aleck. Like, I'd correct my teachers if I thought they'd said something wrong or ..." she trails off, laughs. "I was that kid."

She loved skating, a rink rat from an early age. "I always liked to go fast. Everyone nicknamed me Speedy." At the rink, she was scouted by Renee Hildebrand, the storied in-line coach responsible for training multiple skaters (such as Joey Mantia and Bowe) who've transitioned to ice.

"Erin was a true sprinter, probably the most natural sprinter I've ever spotted, a tough little girl," Hildebrand says. When Jackson turned 10, Rita, who had put Jackson in Little Miss beauty pageants, allowed her daughter to race in-line.

Jackson is a 15-year in-line racing veteran with 47 national championships, was named Female Athlete of the Year for Roller Sports three times and earned MVP honors in roller derby. Luis Ramirez/LatinContent/Getty Images

Jackson made the in-line national team in 2008, earning her first world medal that same year. Then, in Jackson's senior year of high school, her mother fell ill while Jackson was competing in Argentina at the Pan American Championships. "My mom's main illness was diabetes. She was always in and out of the hospital," she says. Jackson recalls many mornings when a neighbor knocked on the door to make sure her mother was alive. "Sometimes I'd have to come home from school if she didn't get up."

"Erin literally had to save her life a few times," Hildebrand says. "Rita always knew her time with Erin was limited. When Erin went away to meets, it meant time away from her. It was hard for her to let her go. But she wanted Erin to be happy."

When Jackson returned from Argentina, her mother had already been admitted to the ER. "I didn't really think anything of it because she was always in the hospital." But this time was different. Fluid had pooled around her heart. "I saw her for a day," Jackson says. "And then she passed."

Jackson took a week off school. At Rita's funeral, the family held a second line parade, brass band, white gloves, dancing, a celebration of life. Afterward, Erin leaned on her friends. She kept racing, kept winning.

"I think now about how cool it would be if my mom could see the different things that I've done, you know?" Jackson says. "Graduating high school, college, making the Olympic team." She falls quiet, drags a spoon idly through her soup. "I normally don't offer up information about myself," she says finally. "If something doesn't need to be said, I probably won't say it. I'm like my dad, I guess."

With her dinner finished, Jackson checks her social feed. The learning curve for her newfound fame has been as steep as her ascension in speedskating. Billie Jean King has sent congratulations. BET is now following her Instagram. Bridgestone is a corporate sponsor.

"At first, I wasn't thinking about being the first black woman to make the long-track team," she says. But she thinks about it now. "People are fired up about it. I'm happy to be someone kids can look to. Someone who looks like them."

Especially in a sport not known for its diversity. Jackson teases that she's thought about making "Not Maame" T-shirts, adding that she's been mistaken for Maame Biney, the short-track skater, more than once, a few times by people who should know better. When it happens, "I just say, 'Nope, wrong one,'" Jackson explains, shrugging, swallowing a smile.

Jackson is the first black woman to compete for the U.S. Olympic long track speedskating team. "I'm happy to be someone kids can look to. Someone who looks like them," she says.

The next day at the Pettit National Ice Center, Jackson laces her skates and shimmies into her uniform of rubber, mesh and orange neon glasses. "We look like insects," she jokes of her competition gear. "Or thumbs."

As she pushes onto the track, Jackson shivers. "My parents never thought I'd transition to ice because I hate the cold. Look at me now." Since making the team, Jackson has made steady technical progression. "We did some simulations last week," Shimabukuro says. "She's been able to replicate what she did at the trials. For her to go just as fast in slower conditions? That's improvement."

Shimabukuro acknowledges that his protégé's win was a surprise but not a fluke. "Erin was on an upward curve and she skated out of her mind," he says, adding emphatically, "An athlete can have an amazing race and never reproduce it again. That's not what I see for her."

Needham likens Jackson to a race car with a gigantic engine and bald tires. "She's still not a great skater. But everything she is missing is attainable. I'm not handicapping her odds."

Back on the track, Jackson clusters with her fellow skaters, and they begin to loop, serpentining as if tethered together, hypnotic in their sway. They corner, their skates clacking against each other like coconut shells, Jackson drafting in the rear, the bow on the tail of a kite.

Breathing deeply, she comes off the ice to rest. Behind the practice bench, a grade-school boy hovers, his father in tow. "Miss Jackson? Can my son shake your hand?" Jackson turns around, extends an arm, asks the boy his name. "This never happened in Florida," she says as he shuffles away, starstruck.

Just then, short-track Olympian Katherine Reutter-Adamek walks up, pats Jackson on the shoulder. "How are you feeling? You getting used to all this attention yet?" Jackson doesn't answer.

A woman yells to her from atop the nearby hockey stands, "Kick some ass, girl!"

Jackson nods, returns to the ice, skating alone this time, at her own pace. Her blades catch what little light there is in the rink, glinting like promise.

Allison Glock has been a writer with ESPN for more than 15 years. The author of seven books, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Outside, Men's Journal and many other publications. She has also written for television and is currently developing a series with A&E.