BEIJING — So what, exactly, runs through the mind of an Olympic gold medalist as she stands atop the podium?
Erin Jackson said it’s honestly not all that complicated.
“Just like, holy crap. And wow. And this is awesome,” she said with a laugh. “Very simple thoughts.”
Her reaction, however, belies the craziness of the journey she took to get there – and perhaps what her place atop that podium represents.
With 37.04 seconds of brilliance, Jackson won the women’s 500 meters at the National Speed Skating Oval on Sunday night – and, in the process, achieved a number of firsts.
The 29-year-old is the first American to win an individual speedskating medal since 2010. The first American woman to do so since 2002. And, according to U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee historian Bill Mallon, the first Black woman to win gold in an individual sport at the Winter Olympics, period.
“Hopefully it has an effect,” Jackson said. “Hopefully we can see more minorities, especially in the USA, getting out and trying some of these winter sports.”
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There is a glaring lack of racial diversity at the Winter Olympics, including on Team USA. And although Jackson has said she did not set out to specifically be a pioneer, she said she is happy to talk about it, because she knows how important that visibility can be.
In an interview with USA TODAY Sports in January, Jackson pivoted from sports and mentioned the impact that female astronaut Sally Ride had by going into space. All of a sudden, she said, more girls took up an interest in math and science.
“Nothing was stopping those young girls from studying space before, but they saw someone else do it and then they were inspired,” she said. “So I hope that I can be an inspiration to someone to go out there and, and try something new.”
Jackson said she also hopes to be an inspiration for young athletes who feel caught in a tug-of-war between sports and academics.
Her path to this moment, after all, was anything but straightforward.
Jackson grew up with skates on her feet, but not the kind she rode to Olympic gold. She was an inline skater as a kid in Ocala, Florida – a town of about 60,000 people between Orlando and Gainesville that does not have a year-round ice rink. She has described herself as a “rink rat” who later blossomed into a world-class inline racer under inline coach Renee Hildebrand, winning 47 national titles 12 world championship medals.
Then, in an increasingly unusual move among Olympic-caliber athletes, she put skating on the backburner. She enrolled at the University of Florida and earned an engineering degree, working to learn about the physical properties of composites and metals, rather than spending eight hours a day training for gold.
“She put the effort into school in a way that some athletes don’t,” said Nancy Ruzycki, who taught her in four classes at Florida.
With her degree in hand, Jackson then got an invite to try speedskating on ice — but paused because she hates the cold. Ultimately, she didn’t want to be left wondering “what if?” She took her first steps wobbly steps on the ice in 2016, then began training with U.S. Speedskating staff the following year.
“She immersed herself in anything and everything that it took to apply her skating knowledge to ice,” national team coach Ryan Shimabukuro said. “She never took that for granted. She never came in with an ego that, ‘oh I’ve already been at the top in this, I’ve got it.’ No. She was very humble, she was willing to start off at square one.”
Jackson surprised even herself by qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics, where she became the first Black woman to represent Team USA in long-track speedskating — another first. She finished 24th in her only race in Pyeongchang. With each year since, she continued to improve. By November, when she started winning races on the World Cup circuit, an Olympic medal started to seem like a real possibility.
“She has really, really strong hips and she keeps them really stable and steady when she skates,” said teammate Kimi Goetz, who finished 18th on Sunday. “If you watch her and you look at her hips, they’re just side-to-side. There’s no up and down. She’s just putting so much power into the ice.”
“And she’s just super fast,” Goetz continued.
Jackson arrived in Beijing as the top-ranked skater in the world in the 500 but, in a twist of fate, almost didn’t make it here in the first place. An unusual slip during her race at the U.S. Olympic trials left her in third place, with only two Americans guaranteed to qualify.
In a heartwarming gesture, teammate Brittany Bowe, who finished ahead of Jackson but does not consider the 500 to be her best event, agreed to forfeit her spot on the team to allow Jackson to compete. (The U.S. later received a third quota spot at the distance, enabling Bowe to compete as well.)
As Jackson approached the finish line Sunday, Bowe said she was running back and forth and “screamed so loud I almost passed out.”
Shimabukuro gave Jackson a hug and later skated briefly with her, holding up an American flag over their heads. “You’re an Olympic champion,” he told her.
Not much else needed to be said.
“She is a role model for so many people,” said Bowe, who is also from Ocala, Florida. “And I think what she did tonight is going to be a springboard to give so many little girls and boys the opportunity to look up to someone that they haven’t been able to look at and relate to. That goes far beyond what any of us could imagine.”
Jackson, for her part, said she immediately started crying when she realized she won gold. She was shocked and relieved and happy and probably a lot of other emotions in between. By the time she spoke with reporters, she said she was still processing everything that was happening — and everything that it took to get there.
“It’s been a wild ride,” she said, “but I think that makes it even sweeter, you know?”
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.