MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN – JANUARY 31: Erin Jackson of the United States competes in the Ladies Team … [+]
On the surface, inline skating and roller skating don’t seem like they would be drastically different from ice skating—and at a recreational level, perhaps they’re not.
At the competitive level, however, every fraction of a second on skates counts. And for 28-year-old long track speed skater Erin Jackson, her notable inline skating career—a 12-time Inline World Championship medalist and 47-time Inline National Champion—didn’t necessarily mean her success would translate to the ice.
No, that is where Jackson supplemented her obvious talent with her considerable drive.
“I’ve been skating for as long as I can remember, and I really enjoy going fast … but I also really like wining. I’m really competitive,” Jackson told me by phone early in 2021, shortly after being announced as one of the newest Team Toyota Olympic athletes.
The Ocala, Florida, native has been inline speed skating since 2002 and began her roller derby career in 2012, going on to become the three-time United States Olympic Committee Female Athlete of the Year for Roller Sports (2012, 2013, 2015).
But at the highest levels of inline skating, Jackson found herself itching for more—more speed, more challenge and, yes, more wins.
“For inline, the highest level you can get is the world championships every year and the Pan American Games every four years,” Jackson said. “Beyond that, there is no Olympic opportunity for inline skating.”
Many of Jackson’s inline teammates growing up in Ocala, including Team USA’s TISI +2.7% Brittany Bowe, moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, and made the switch from inline skating to ice skating.
“Seeing their success growing up and how they were able to transfer over to the ice, and then seeing them make it to the Olympics, was something I always wanted to do as well,” Jackson said.
Though she didn’t begin skating on ice until she was 25 years old, Jackson made Team USA after only four months of training as a speed skater. She went on to compete at the PyeongChang 2018 Games, and in so doing she became the first Black woman to compete for the U.S. Olympic long track speed skating team.
Part of the reason Jackson started her career on ice so late? Her laser focus on her education. Jackson graduated cum laude from the University of Florida College of Engineering with a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering in May 2015. She just recently finished earning her associate’s degree in computer science and is starting an associate’s in exercise science and kinesiology.
If it seems like Jackson is aiming to have as many degrees as world championship titles, it just might be the case. “I was joking with another person recently because we had to do a questionnaire to introduce ourselves when I started this new exercise science program. I came to the realization I should put down ‘school’ as one of my hobbies,” Jackson laughed.
“At a young age I was tricked into thinking that books and dictionaries and all that were really cool,” she continued. “My parents were really education-focused. They made sure I had all the right opportunities for school. They started a college program to pay for tuition when I was a kid.”
Jackson’s interest in engineering as a career focus is one of “a million reasons” she’s excited to be a new face of Team Toyota. She is interested in learning more about the company’s tech projects; when she retires from her sport, she may even pursue going to help work on some of those projects.
“I’m learning about Toyota’s initiatives with mobility and freedom of movement; with my undergrad degree in materials engineering, I focused a lot on prosthetics, and so it seems like it fits well with mobility,” Jackson said. After skating, she’d like to combine all her areas of study—computer engineering, computer science, kinesiology—into one rewarding career where she can help others.
TOMAKOMAI, JAPAN – NOVEMBER 23: (L-R) Silver medalist Erin Jackson of USA, gold medalist Kaja Ziomek … [+]
It may take, believe it or not, even more postgraduate study; Jackson is thinking that, after the 2022 Games, she could pursue a master’s program in biomechanics.
School as a hobby, indeed.
Jackson’s parents have also always supported her competitive goals, and when the time was right to make the switch to skating on ice, Jackson went all-in, relocating from sunny Florida to Utah to train.
“Before I started on the ice, I thought, ‘I’m a skater, this is skating, it can’t be too hard,’” Jackson said. Out on the ice, however, she was hit with a cold wake-up call.
“We have muscle memory from inline, but it’s not always the right muscle memory; the technique is fundamentally different,” Jackson explained. “We always joke about which muscles are hurting when you’re on the ice. When you’re hurting in your quads, you’re skating like an inliner. When you’re hurting in your hips, you’re skating like an ice skater.”
It’s about the way you apply pressure to the ice, Jackson says. She’s more of a quick-footed skater, relying on foot speed. That works for inline skating, but on ice, she’s had to work on slowing down her foot speed and focusing on having a lower cadence with stronger pressure into the ice.
Inline skating is pack style, where there isn’t as strong a focus on technique. Long track is the opposite, Jackson explains; everything hinges on individual time trials, and technique is of utmost importance.
It’s more about the angle, Jackson says, and how it influences your direction of push. (She can’t help but think about it like an engineer.)
“Once I got out there and realized all those things, it was a little frustrating, because I came out to Salt Lake City and I was the slowest person out there. I was eager to not be the slowest person anymore,” Jackson said.
In the early days, Jackson went to every ice session open to her, training three times a day in short track, long track, learning how to do crossovers with groups of little kids.
“I felt like I was trying to make up for lost time,” she said. “That had a lot to do with how quickly I caught onto it and helped with the timing right before the Olympic trials.”
Going into Olympic trials ahead of the PyeongChang Games, Jackson didn’t even have a qualifying time to be on the ice at the Olympics. Salt Lake City, where she trains, is the fastest ice in the world, given the elevation and air pressure, among other factors. Olympic trials were held in Milwaukee, which is sea-level ice. “If you can’t get a time at Salt Lake, you aren’t going to get it at sea level,” Jackson said.
Needless to say, getting a fast enough time to qualify for the Olympic team was a “shock,” Jackson says. “I just remember getting interviewed right after and for every question I just said, ‘I don’t know.’ It just happened so quickly.”
It also proved to be crucial for her confidence as a speed skater. “For the last Olympic trials and Games, I was going with the flow, like, ‘I don’t really feel like I belong here, I just started in this sport recently, I don’t know how I got here,’” she said. “This time, I’m coming in with more confidence and feeling like I belong.”
MILWAUKEE, WI – JANUARY 05: (L-R) Heather Bergsma, Brittany Bowe and Erin Jackson stand on the … [+]
As the first Black woman to compete for the U.S. Olympic long track speed skating team, Jackson hopes to inspire the next generation of athletes to pursue speed skating or other sports in which barriers still exist.
“I’m always striving to be a role model,” Jackson said. “I like talking to the kids whenever I do panels or events. Being with Team Toyota now, it’s a really diverse team and they have a lot of other people who have broken down these barriers in their various sports. It’ll be a nice environment for me to learn from them and how they’re doing better for their communities. One of the more notable people I can think of now, Simone Manuel, the first Black woman to earn an individual Olympic gold medal in swimming, is also part of Team Toyota. I’m hoping I’ll get to hang out with her a bit and kind of talk about these things.
“I welcome being a trailblazer,” Jackson said. “I hope I can make a difference.”
This weekend, Jackson will compete at the U.S. Speed Skating Long Track Championships in Kearns, Utah, as she pursues her goal of representing the U.S. in the Olympics again, this time at the Beijing 2022 Games. (She also hopes to participate in her first-ever Opening Ceremony, as she had to sit out the celebration with the flu in 2018.)
With more experience on ice under her belt, she’s aiming higher than ever—a top-five finish in the world championships and medal contention at the Beijing Games.
“I feel like I have it in me to make it to the top of this sport,” Jackson said.
I have been writing about action sports and the Olympics and Paralympics for more than a decade, having covered Summer and Winter X Games, Summer and Winter Olympics and