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From Wheels To Ice And Back To Wheels, Olympic Champ Erin Jackson Readies For Her Return To The Pan Am Games

by Bob Reinert

Erin Jackson poses for a Team USA photo shoot ahead of the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Oct. 13, 2021 in Irvine, Calif. (Photo by Team USA)

Much has changed since Erin Jackson last competed at the Pan American Games Toronto 2015.

At that event eight years ago in Toronto, Jackson claimed a silver medal in the inline speedskating 500-meter event, marking another roller sports achievement in a career full of them.

In the years since, the native of Central Florida transitioned to ice speedskating, qualified for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, and then earned a gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. In the process, she became the first Black woman to win a Winter Olympic gold medal in an individual event.

Now Jackson, 31, is back in her inline skates and back at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023, this time aiming for a podium finish when the inline competition takes place Nov. 4-5 in Santiago, Chile.

“I feel like it’s been so long since I’ve been able to go to the Pan Am Games,” said Jackson, who is now based in Utah. “I’m just excited. It was a really good time last time I was there.”

Jackson, who is simultaneously preparing for the 2023-24 speedskating season, is set to race the 200- and 500-meter events in Chile, with the 1,000 “still to be determined,” she said.

Even as her speedskating career blossomed in recent years, Jackson never officially left the roller sports she grew up competing.

As a kid in Ocala, Florida, Jackson was roller skating for as long as she can remember, and she began inline speedskating around age 10. A decade after that, she added roller derby to her repertoire.

But it was as an inline speedskater that she really made her name.

Following the example of fellow Ocala natives Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia, Jackson became highly decorated in that sport, eventually winning 47 national titles, according to her US Speedskating biography. Also following Bowe and Mantia, she eventually switched to ice and became a Team USA star in that sport.

Even now, as she preps for another run at the Olympic Winter Games Milano Cortina 2026, Jackson has prioritized finding her way back to wheels when she can.

In 2022, not long after her historic gold medal in the women’s 500-meter in Beijing and the media frenzy that followed it, Jackson won the one-lap sprint at the inline world championships in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She also earned a silver medal in the inline 500-meter event.

She then returned to the ice and reached the podium four times on the 2022-23 world cup circuit. Jackson was also part of the U.S. team that earned a silver medal in the team sprint at the world championships.

Most recently, she was back in her inline skates at the 2023 world championships this past September in Italy, where she earned a bronze medal in the 500-meter. However, that marked the last time she raced on wheels prior to Santiago.

“I don’t train on my inlines a whole lot. I just kind of stay in shape for my ice skating,” Jackson said. “I spend the practice days at the inline competitions just getting used to inlining again. But it’s not normally too tricky of a process.”

(Inline skiing is) kind of my default way of skating, so the issue is not really relearning inline skating, it’s relearning ice after I leave inline.
Erin Jackson, speedskating

Despite the obvious similarities in the two disciplines, the technical approach is different when competing on wheels versus blades, Jackson said.

“I think it’s harder to go from inline back to ice because inline was kind of like how I got started,” said Jackson, who first tried ice skating at age 25. “It’s kind of my default way of skating, so the issue is not really relearning inline skating, it’s relearning ice after I leave inline.”

Jackson first tried ice skating in the spring of 2017, and her speedskating career rapidly took off from there. She began training full time that September, and by February 2018 she was on the U.S. Olympic Team.

A back injury kept Jackson out of the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, and it remains a “lingering” issue, she said. But this time she was feeling good enough to strap her inline skates back on.

Jackson said she’s excited about the U.S. team going to the Pan Am Games. Teammate Darian O’Neil-Orozco recently returned to the sport after having a baby.

“Now she’s back and stronger than ever,” Jackson said. “So that’s going to be really exciting to see.”

However, Jackson won’t be staying in South America to enjoy the sights. She leaves Santiago on Nov. 6 and arrives in Obihiro, Japan, on the night of Nov. 8. The speedskating world cup season begins there two days later.

“So, it will be a pretty quick turnaround,” Jackson said.

Following her breakout speedskating season in 2021-22, when she won six 500-meter races and medaled in the other two, Jackson’s results remained good but not dominant in 2022-23 as she managed the three herniated discs in her lower back. But this season has been “pretty good” so far. She said her speed in the 500 is back, and she’s working to regain her fitness to be a contender in the 1,000.

“My goals would be consistent podiums in the 500 and kind of getting back to ‘A’ group level in the 1,000,” she said.

Between all of her training and racing this past year, Jackson also found time to take part in the second season of the reality TV show “Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test,” which was filmed over the summer in New Zealand.

How did Jackson, whose father is a U.S. Army retiree, wind up on the show, which is currently airing on Fox?

“My agent called me one day and asked me if I thought I was one of the toughest people in the world,” Jackson explained. “And I said, ‘Definitely not, but I can try to be.’ And he basically explained the concept to me. I just said yes before I could think about it too much.

“I didn’t want to do anything that would hurt my back, but I also knew kind of deep down that it would be really hard for me to quit, right? But I told my coach … if it came down to it, I wouldn’t risk my back, I would quit. But in the back of my head, I knew it would be kind of hard for me to quit.”