Erin Jackson’s Historic Olympic Gold Medal In Beijing Still Inspires
by Bob Reinert
Erin Jackson celebrates during the women's 500-meter flower ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 13, 2022 in Beijing.
37.04 seconds a year ago made all the difference.
That’s how long it took Erin Jackson to travel around the speedskating oval in Beijing and become the first Black woman to earn an individual gold medal in the history of the Olympic Winter Games. She did so when she won the women’s 500-meter long track event on the middle Sunday of the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, a moment that came one year ago today.
Now, as she did then, Jackson fully understands the significance of that achievement.
“I won the medal during Black History Month, so that just kind of added to, I guess, the energy of everything,” said Jackson, who has since had the opportunity to meet with various minority groups. “Just kind of hearing their stories and just like how it’s touched them, it’s super rewarding for me to hear what the kids are saying, what their parents are saying.”
As the calendar pages flipped over to February 2023 and yet another Black History Month, Jackson said that her historic victory on Feb. 13, 2022, retains its surreal quality.
“Sometimes, I’ll think about it and be like, ‘Did that really happen?’ I guess it’s still sinking in for the most part,” she said. “I guess when it first happened, there was just a whole lot of emotion, you know, a lot of shock and happiness and pride and everything like that.
“I still feel all those things. Sometimes, we’ll watch a highlight reel of the Games before a big … meeting or something like that, and everyone’s still getting all teary-eyed. I feel like all that stuff has really stuck with me, and I’m still just really grateful for everything that’s happened, and just really, really proud.”
Ironically, it nearly didn’t happen at all. The top-ranked 500-meter skater in the world, Jackson stumbled down the stretch at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials and failed to make the team. In an act of sportsmanship, hometown friend and mentor Brittany Bowe of Ocala, Florida, gifted her Olympic spot in the 500 to Jackson.
“It added a little drama to the situation,” Jackson recalled. “It was like this big fairytale ending because I went into the trials thinking, ‘I just have to get through this to go on to my further goals.’ And then it didn’t work out that way.
“So, then there was a lot of stress, a lot of negative emotion there. But I was still staying super positive. For it all to work out just made it even that much more rewarding. To be able to share those moments with my team, my teammates — especially with Brittany — I have to find some way to repay that favor at some point.”
Erin Jackson reacts after setting the fastest time of the women's 500-meters during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 13, 2022 in Beijing.
(Bowe, for the record, went on to win her first individual Olympic medal when she took bronze in the 1,000-meter in Beijing. Additionally, after the reallocation of quotas she ended up racing in the 500 after all.)
Nonetheless, Jackson certainly wasted no time paying Bowe’s largesse forward. She has done speaking engagements, media events, and visited schools and organizations.
Did the gold medal come with a heightened sense of responsibility to younger athletes of color?
“I guess I don’t really think of it as a responsibility because I feel like I’d want to be a good example, a good role model, no matter what,” Jackson said. “No matter who’s watching, I always want to try to be someone that’s worth watching.
“There was never like a flip of the switch. I kind of always wanted to do good.”
While doing good as a freshly minted Olympic gold medalist, Jackson has discovered that those who give often receive in kind.
“There was one lady who recently told me that her daughter had kind of hung up her skates because she wasn’t feeling very confident,” she said. “But then she saw kind of the side-by-side videos of me like my first time on the ice versus five, six years later. And then it motivated her to put her skates back on. Now she’s been skating pretty much ever since that happened, since like a year ago. That was really cool to hear.”
Then there was the refugee group in Salt Lake City who donned skates after watching Jackson win in Beijing.
“They said that it was because they saw me skating that they wanted to come out here and try ice skating,” she related. “That’s awesome. So hopefully, I can connect with that group in the future.”
Jackson’s gold medal came on the shoulders of other pioneering Black winter Olympians, including fellow American Vonetta Flowers, the bobsledder who teamed with Jill Bakken to win two-woman gold in 2002. Flowers was the first Black athlete to win an Olympic gold medal.
Things won’t change overnight because a Black woman has now won an individual Winter Olympic gold medal. But, Jackson has seen progress over the years.
She pointed to her own story of growing up in central Florida and thriving first as an inline speedskater. Following the footsteps of Bowe and several others, Jackson tried ice skating for the first time in 2016, and then made her Olympic debut in 2018 after only four months of training.
Erin Jackson competes in the women's 500-meters during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 13, 2022 in Beijing.
“We’ve had a few more minorities come over to ice skating since I’ve been around, mostly through transition programs where you pull people from similar sports,” she said.
There’s no doubt that Jackson’s life has become more hectic since she reached the top of an Olympic podium.
“I think I just realized that this last three- to four-week period is the longest I’ve been home in like over a year,” she said at the end of January, during a break between the fall and winter world cup stops. “I’ve just been pretty much on the go since last season got started. It’s been great, but it’s also been super busy.”
In this first year of the quadrennial leading up to the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy, Jackson’s approach is a bit different than in the run-up to Beijing.
“This season, I definitely have a really different outlook,” she said. “I didn’t come in with as much intensity and focus as I did the last two years. But that kind of makes sense. We’ve got a whole four-year cycle. So, this year has been a bit more relaxed for me.”
Jackson, now 30 years old, is trying to stay healthy as she adds more 1,000-meter races to her repertoire this winter.
“I’m definitely trying to branch out a little bit,” she said. “The 500, I think, is always going to be my best race. Just physiologically, I guess, I’m more of a short-distance athlete.
“It’s definitely challenging. It hurts, you know? The main thing about our sport is sitting in that deep position and building all the lactic acid in your muscles. I’m doubling my (racing), so I’m kind of doubling the pain there, but I think in the end it’ll pay off. Hopefully, I can get some good results there.”
As she speaks, Jackson smiles often and broadly and has clearly learned to relish the anniversary of her golden moment amid a busy schedule.
“Just enjoying hanging out with my teammates,” Jackson said. “The team’s really close this year, so that’s always a good thing. I’m having a good time, looking forward for our races coming up.”
Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.