It may seem paradoxical that a Black woman born and raised in Ocala, Florida, where the average temperature in February is 73 degrees, would become a cold weather, winter sport champion. But that is exactly what Erin Jackson has achieved.
On Sunday at the Beijing Winter Olympics, the 29-year-old who graduated with honors from the University of Florida’s Materials Science & Engineering program, became the first Black woman to win an Olympic medal in speed skating when she captured gold in the 500-meters.
Jackson broke a nearly 20-year gold medal drought by United States women in speedskating events. Prior to Jackson’s victory, Bonnie Blair was the last American to stand atop a podium, also earning first place in the 500-meters in 1994. Jackson’s time of 37.04 was 0.08 seconds better than Miho Takagi of Japan, who took silver, and 0.17 seconds ahead of bronze medalist Angelina Golikova of the Russian Olympic Committee.
Jackson’s historic moment was potentially undermined by her fall to the ice during the U.S. Olympic qualifying trials in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in early January. Coming in third, she initially failed to make the team despite being ranked No. 1 in the world in the 500-meters. “I messed up. It’s definitely on me,” she said to the USA Network after the mishap. But teammate Brittany Bowe, who had qualified in 500-, 1000- and 1500-meters, subsequently offered her spot in the 500-meters to Jackson in an act of compassion.
“She has earned the right to compete in her marquee event at the Olympics,” said Bowe from Beijing, “and it was an honor to give her that spot for the opportunity to race for gold for Team USA.”
Jackson became only the second Black skater to medal at an Olympics in speedskating, joining Shani Davis, who won gold in the men’s 1000-meters in both the 2006 and 2010 Olympics. Leading up to Sunday’s milestone, Jackson also had the distinction of being the first Black woman to win a World Cup race when she clocked the fastest time in the 500-meters last November in Poland.
She surpassed that with her victory in China on the sport’s biggest stage. “I cried immediately,” she said to reporters following the conclusion of the competition. “It was just a big release of emotion. A lot of shock, a lot of relief and a lot of happiness. I haven’t fully processed everything quite yet, but it just feels amazing.”
An elite in-line skater, Jackson was a gold medalist in the discipline—more commonly known as rollerblading—in the 500-meters at 2008-’09 Junior World Championships. She continued to ascend and was named the Female Athlete of the Year for Roller Sports in 2012 and 2013 by the United States Olympic Committee.
Jackson transitioned to the ice in earnest less than six months before the 2018 winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, qualified for the U.S. team in the 500-meters, and finished 24th among 31 speedskaters.