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 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.
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.