Erin Jackson brings Florida heat to Olympic ice

February 16, 2018
Robin Shear
photographer: US Speedskating/John Kleba
Olympics

The UF Alumni Association shared a sneak preview of their story on Gator speed skater Erin Jackson ahead of her Olympic run on Feb. 18. The full story will run in the spring issue of the UFAA member magazine, Florida Gator.

Up until Jan. 5, relatively few people beyond the worlds of roller derby and inline speed skating had heard of Erin Jackson. It took her just 39.04 seconds to change that.

On a frigid Friday night inside Milwaukee’s Pettit National Ice Center, the University of Florida alumna made her first run of the 500-meter long-track ice speed skating event, clocking 39.22 seconds at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Incredibly, in her second run, Jackson shaved that down to nearly 39 flat, surging ahead of Olympian Sugar Todd at the finish to take third place behind two other seasoned Olympians, Brittany Bowe and Heather Bergsma.

The 25-year-old Gator not only clinched her 2018 Olympic spot that night, but she also cemented her place in history as the first African-American woman to make the U.S. Olympic long-track speed skating team.

“It’s a pretty awesome feeling,” says Jackson, who graduated with an engineering degree in 2015. “Since qualifying for the Olympic team, I've come to realize that many people of color find inspiration in stories like mine. Something you might notice if you watch the Winter Olympic Games is that there are not a lot of black people participating. I'm looking forward to being someone who children and people of color in general can look to and make them think, 'Hey, maybe I should go out and try some of these sports, too.'"

A competitive inline skater and USA Roller Derby national team member, Jackson had been training on ice skates for only a little over four months. Those familiar with Jackson’s hard work, humility and drive know she’s been carving her own path to greatness since childhood, balancing her time between the worlds of academics and athletics while excelling in both.

Nancy J. Ruzycki, a faculty lecturer and director of undergraduate laboratories in UF’s materials science and engineering department, remembers Jackson as “an incredible scholar” and “a really good person” who would “take a couple days a week and drive almost 100 miles to train and then come back and carry a huge course load and be successful at both.” 

Jackson didn’t skimp on campus involvement, either, joining tutoring organizations and the American Association of Blacks in Energy.

“She was just really focused,” says Ruzycki, who had Jackson in four of her classes. “She has grit, perseverance, resilience – all of the qualities that make for a great athlete and a great engineer.”

In February 2017, Jackson spent a month with the inline-to-ice transition program at the Utah Olympic Oval before resuming her hectic inline competition schedule, interspersed with roller derby bouts. Jackson returned to the program full time in late September, just three months before the Olympic trials.

She had some serious catching up to do.

So, like any good engineer, she began problem-solving and recalibrating. “About a month in, I decided I needed to take a step back and really focus on my technique and on how to become an ice skater,” she says.

It worked.

Jackson’s next goals include starting engineering grad school and training for the 2022 Games. 

“I just always had goals of getting to the top level of both academics and sports,” she says. “Right now, I’m seeing ‘Olympic champion’ as the top level. That’s the end goal by the next Olympic Games — to be in medal contention.” 

Jackson’s coach, Ryan Shimabukuro, says she absolutely has a shot at the podium in 2022, adding: “We still have a long way to go before she realizes her full true potential.”

That suits Jackson just fine.

“I love to have things to work on,” she says, “because that just means there are still more levels to unlock.”

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