Skate Mania isn’t much different than it was two decades ago when Erin Jackson first walked in. The sprawling wooden floor beneath fluorescent lights; the smell of brown leather roller skates; the snack bar; and the same teenage dreams inside four walls of painted cement and corrugated aluminum.
There’s little to suggest this timeworn roller skating rink on the outskirts of Ocala, Florida, is where one of the most compelling stories of this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics all began. Or that this small town in the thick of horse country has become the speed skating capital of America. Jackson plays a big role in that.
It’s been two months since she surged to Olympic speed skating glory in the women’s 500m, becoming the first Black woman to win gold in any individual event at the Winter Games. Roughly six years after stepping on ice for the first time in her life, the former inline skater completed the all-out sprint in a time of 37.04sec, ending Team USA’s extended medal drought in a sport it once dominated and earning her the title of world’s fastest woman on ice.
Jackson’s historic triumph – Team USA’s first individual speed skating medal of any color in 12 years and the first by an American woman since 2002 – was breathlessly touted, peppered with slews of interviews and shout-outs from Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Viola Davis and Gabrielle Union. She then emerged from the post-Olympic maelstrom to win the last two 500m events of the year at the World Cup finals in the Netherlands in March, finishing with six wins from 10 races to clinch the season-long title and remove any lingering doubt to her claim as the world’s best sprinter.
It would seem Jackson’s improbable backstory – a Black star in an almost entirely white sport, hailing from a warm-weather city more than an hour’s drive from the nearest ice rink – and unfathomable run of success as a relative novice would be catnip for corporate sponsors. Instead, for all the clamor over her trail-blazing achievement on the world stage, Jackson says that she’s added no new sponsors since Beijing.
“The thing with Olympic sports is that – how do I say it diplomatically? – people don’t care a whole lot as soon as the Olympics are over,” she says, smiling. “Right after the Games, it’s tough. Where’s the money coming from? How are we going to keep paying rent? Because it does go kind of dark after the Games. Everyone forgets about you.”
What makes Jackson, 29, feeling unnoticed soon after the Games hard to understand is that she can’t help but stand out. The Winter Olympics from their inception nearly a century ago have been an overwhelmingly lily-white affair. Despite long-running efforts by the International Olympic Committee to increase diversity through quota systems, not enough has changed to bring more people of color into Winter Olympic sports.
“I just think it’s really strange to imagine that it’s 2022 and I’m getting the first individual gold medal by a Black woman ever in the history of the Winter Olympics,” Jackson says. “I feel like that’s a pretty strange thing for the year that we’re in.”
She says cost and exposure are two main reasons the sport of which she’s reached a pinnacle in five dizzying years has failed to attract more athletes of color, resulting in a Team USA that doesn’t reflect the population it represents.
“If I didn’t have the help in the beginning with that sport, I wouldn’t have had a future in it. It’s expensive. But I was lucky to have people like at the rink right over there, who would donate skates and equipment and wheels,” she says.
Had it not also been for a coach with a shrewd eye for talent – and an unorthodox speed skating background of her own – Jackson’s meteoric ascent might never have left the launchpad.
Jackson’s earliest memories of life involve skating. She recalls clacking around in a pair of plastic adjustable roller skates that buckled into place on top of her shoes in the driveway of her family’s Ocala house. She found a second home at the open sessions at Skate Mania and spent two years in artistic skating – figure skating on wheels, essentially – but her instinctive urge to peel away at breakneck speeds rather than focus on her jumps caught the attention of Renee Hildebrand, who for more than three decades has trained Ocala kids into world-class inline speed skaters.
Jackson credits Hildebrand, a former inliner who hasn’t skated on ice in more than 20 years, with helping establish both a versatile technical background and the mental fortitude for Olympic-level competition. “The mental game is a really big part of what we do, especially with a sport that’s so technical and so individual as speed skating.”
By the time Jackson was 10, she was training with two of Hildebrand’s more seasoned Ocala-born inline proteges – Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia – who were already racking up inline world championships around the globe.
By 15, Jackson had won the first of four inline world titles. A self-described “rink rat”, she also stood out in the rough-and-tumble world of roller derby, excelling as a jammer with the Jacksonville RollerGirls of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. But as Jackson’s trophy case filled and high school graduation drew near, she faced a gnawing reality: there are no Olympic medals for inline skating.
She was courted by US Speedskating’s talent scouts to trade her wheels for blades, a path taken by Bowe and Mantia (and the epochal Apolo Anton Ohno before them), but initially turned them down. She went to school instead, enrolling at the nearby University of Florida to pursue an engineering degree. But the Olympic itch returned after she watched Bowe and Mantia represent the United States – and Skate Mania – at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. “It was always in the back of my mind,” Jackson says.
She first stepped hesitantly on to an ice rink during a trip to the Netherlands in 2016, an experience she describes as “Bambi on ice”, a moment captured on a video that NBC aired endlessly during their Olympic telecast. A year later, she decided to fully commit with her sights fixed on the 2022 Olympics.