How Speed Skater Erin Jackson Is Making Winter Olympics History

A newcomer to the ice, she's the first African-American woman set to compete in Olympic long-track skating; she discusses how she reached the milestone

Erin Jackson competes in the Ladies 500 meter event during the Long Track Speed Skating Olympic Trials at the Pettit National Ice Center on January 5, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

A lifelong speed skater but a newcomer on the ice, Erin Jackson never expected to make the 2018 Winter Olympics.

But on January 5th at the USA Olympic trials in Milwaukee, the 25-year-old became one of two African-American women, along with short track speed skater Maame Biney, to qualify for the Olympics for speed skating. Jackson, who shaved off an entire second off of her personal best in the 500 meter prior to trials, will be America's first-ever African-American woman to compete in Olympic long-track skating.

Remarkably, until this past fall, Jackson had competed only on inline roller skates; she took up skating on ice barely four months ago, with the original goal of training for the next Winter Olympics — in 2022.

Before her stunning coup in Milwaukee, Jackson had medaled many times since joining Team USA in 2008: She won a gold medal in the 500-meter race at the 2014 Pan American Championships, as well as another gold for the 500 meter race, and a silver medal in the 200 meters at the 2014 Pan American Olympic Festival. The Ocala, Florida native was also named the United States Olympic Committee's Female Athlete of the Year for roller sports in 2012.

With her competition set to start February 16th in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Jackson spoke with Rolling Stone a few days ago.

You beat some fierce competition to make the Olympic team. What was it like to clinch a spot?
It was pretty exciting, and the first thing I felt was shock, of course. Originally I thought of going to this competition (the Olympic trials) and use it as a checkpoint in my training. I didn't really come in thinking I was going snag one of these spots on the Olympic team, it just sort of happened that way. My goal was really to work on my technique over the next four years and make a big showing for the next cycle. But I'm pretty excited to have achieved that goal earlier than expected.

Word is that you switched to ice just a few months ago. Tell us about that.
I've been on skates pretty much my whole life and have been an inline skater for 15 years now. When I switched over to ice at first it was frustrating, but not in a bad way. I found this new form of skating that I couldn't do and that I wasn't good at. But it motivated me to get better and see what I could change within my technique as an ice skater.

On inlines skates you [maintain] a flat back, which allows you to gain power from your quads. But then on the ice, you want to arch your back up a little more and that allows you to activate your hamstrings, your glutes, and your hips. Combining that allows you to push [your feet] out to the side.

Fellow athletes have described you as focused, not flashy. What's the mental game needed to skate consistently at such a high level?
Competition on inlines has built in a lot of the mental toughness, and I've been helped a lot with that from my skating coach Renee Hilldebrand, back in Ocala. With all that in mind, nothing compares to the Olympics, but past skating and training helps prepare with fitness, to deal with that higher level of competition.

The nice thing about Inline [skating] is that the movements and strategy are sort of second nature. But coming over to ice, I'm still pretty new, and everything I do, I still have to think. Still, coming into the Olympic trials I was able to let it flow, and everything came together at the right moment. Somehow, I was able to let loose and go for it.

You're also the first African-American woman to skate long-track for the U.S. Olympic team. What does that mean to you?
Something that you might notice if you're someone who watches the Winter Olympic Games is that there are not a lot of people of color participating. But I'm looking forward just to being someone that children and people of color can look to, and maybe make them say "maybe this is a sport that I can get into."

Having grown up in Florida, is it unusual at all now to be competing, of all things, in the Winter Olympics in Korea?
There are actually three of us from the same hometown — there's Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia, also out of Ocala, Florida. So, yeah, inline skating just creates a great base for people to be able to switch over to Olympic-style competition.