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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."
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."
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