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Erin Jackson takes fast track to Olympic long track skating history

Erin Jackson competes in the women's 500 meters during the U.S. Olympic long track speedskating trials.
Erin Jackson competes in the women's 500 meters during the U.S. Olympic long track speedskating trials. AP

The only thing Erin Jackson hasn’t been able to outrace on her 2018 Winter Olympic quest is illness.

The history-making 25-year-old long track speedskater from Ocala, Florida, missed the Winter Games’ opening ceremony last week after she caught a bug and that kept her in her room.

"The coaches and medical staff decided it would be best for me to stay back and rest," Jackson said in an Instagram post last week. "I’m looking forward to coming back stronger than ever."

The fact that Jackson, who has been practicing this week, is even in Pyeongchang is one of the amazing stories of the Winter Games. She’s the United States’ first African American female long track speedskater at the Winter Olympics.

Jackson qualified for the team only four months after taking up the sport, making the transition from inline roller skating and roller derby.

She went to the U.S. Olympic trials in Milwaukee in January in hopes of gaining experience. She got a plane ticket to Pyeongchang instead.

"When I first went over to the ice, I wasn’t very good at all," Jackson said. "It was like a frustrating motivation because I consider myself a skater, because I’ve been on skates my whole life, but then I found this new form of skating that I just wasn’t good at. That was really motivating for me to get better and better."

Now, some experts consider her and Maame Biney, a suburban Washington, D.C. teenager who became the first black female U.S. short track Olympian, as the future of speedskating.

Biney was eliminated in the 500-meter short track quarterfinals Tuesday night. Jackson hits the ice Sunday in the 500-meter long track competition at the Gangneung Oval.

"For Erin to do it as quickly as she did is downright amazing," said Renee Hildebrand, an Ocala-based inline skating coach who helped guide Jackson’s transition to ice.

Hildebrand knows what it takes to go from wheels to steel. She helped Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia, fellow Ocala inline skaters who competed in long track at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and are seeking medals with Jackson here in Pyeongchang, make the transition.

"Brittany and Joey took much more time to transition," said Hildebrand, who’s in Pyeonchang to cheer on her pupils. "Joey, especially, he’s gotten really good in the last couple of years. Brittany did it a little faster. And Erin hit it just drastically fast."

Hildebrand calls Jackson her "Rookie Girl" and credits the skater’s analytical mind — Jackson is a 2015 graduate of the University of Florida’s Materials Science and Engineering department — for making the transition to ice smoother and faster.

"She’s a real intelligent person," Hildebrand said. "She did probably the best job of getting the technique and understanding it. Joey (Mantia) even told me that he’s been doing ice for eight years now and he says ‘I still don’t feel as good as I did on inline.’ It’s still not natural for him."

It wasn’t natural for Jackson either, despite how little time it took for her to make the change.

"My style of inline skating is pretty much the opposite of what you need to do to be successful on the ice," she said. "So I just really had to focus getting rid of those inline habits and become a better ice skater, forming ice habits."

She was determined to do so because she was determined to be an Olympian. She’s already achieved international success, having won a gold medal for inline skating at the 2014 Pan American Championships.

The United States Olympic Committee named Jackson its Female Athlete of the Year for Roller Sports in 2012, 2013 and 2015.

But since inline skating isn’t an Olympic sport, Jackson decided to follow in a growing number of inline skaters who crossed over to speedskating.

"I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that, hey, if I want to go to the Olympics I have to become an ice skater like all the other inliners before me," she said. "But I also wanted to get a degree before I thought of any of that. So I graduated college in 2015 and then took a little time to myself just to enjoy life in Florida and then started to think ‘Okay, let’s try this ice thing.’"

Jackson is one of a record 10 African American athletes in the 242-member U.S. delegation at the Winter Games. She hopes that her presence in Pyeongchang will inspire more African Americans, especially young girls, to try skating and other winter sports.

"I’m just looking forward to being someone she can see in the Olympics, on TV, and think ‘Okay, there’s someone like me out there, so I can do it, too.’”

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

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