By Phillip Heilman, GateHouse Media Services
The world is getting to know Ocala’s Erin Jackson as the first black woman to make the U.S. Olympic long-track speedskating team.
Her transformation in only a few months from an accomplished inline skater to an Olympian on ice is one of the journeys to the Pyeongchang Games already being widely celebrated.
Yet, regardless of how many times her story is told, inside the Mandarin Skate Station on Kori Road — where Jacksonville Roller Derby holds its practices and Jackson has spent hours — the 25-year-old multisport athlete will always just be Baybee.
“She knows she’s good,” said Keri Long Lewis, who has been teammates with Jackson for about five years. “But she doesn’t give off a vibe that she’s better than anybody — ever.”
Jackson is on a much larger stage at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, which officially began with Friday’s opening ceremonies.
There, Jackson will make American history when she competes in the women’s 500-meter race Sunday, her chance to write the most improbable chapter yet in a story even she has trouble grasping.
“It’s something that has been on my radar for at least a decade now,” Jackson said. “Because inline skating is not an Olympic sport, we have to go over to the ice to pursue any Olympic dreams. … I’m just going to go out there and try to get more personal bests.”
A personal best is what got Jackson to Pyeongchang, but that part comes later. Jackson’s magnificence at inline — a sport she has competed in for about 15 years — deserves first mention.
Unlike Olympic speedskating, inline takes place on solid ground and uses a skate that looks to the untrained eye like a Rollerblade. And if the discipline were part of the Olympics, Jackson might be the sport’s Michael Phelps.
Jackson is an 11-time inline world medalist and 47-time national champion. That success helped her become a three-time Female Athlete of the Year for Roller Sports (2012, ’13 and ’15), as named by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
But with no shot at Olympic glory, Jackson decided to focus on speedskating full time in September.
Yes, just five months ago. And that’s how her stunning personal best comes in.
Jackson shocked everyone — perhaps no one more than herself — when she finished third in the 500-meter event at last month’s U.S. trials with a time of 39.04 seconds. Because Brittany Bowe (37.95 seconds) and Heather Bergsma (38.24) also qualified in the 1000m, Jackson earned a spot on the Olympic team.
“Just a couple weeks ago I was in the 40s,” Jackson said afterward of her recent times. “I hadn’t even broken 40 yet. It’s all happened really fast. It’s crazy.”
Crazy because in speedskating every millisecond matters, and Jackson’s previous personal best of 39.51 had been set on Dec. 23 in Salt Lake City. So crazy, in fact, Jackson had few people make the trip to Wisconsin to watch her compete.
“Those of us who are close to her, we were like, ‘Oh, this is cool. She’s going to go race. If she does well, she’ll decide if she wants to get really serious, stick with it, and then maybe in four years she’ll be in the Olympics.’ That’s how she viewed it,” Lewis said. “She had no clue.”
No clue that Jackson, whose bright smile splashes out from her Instagram account, where she has kept friends and fans updated from Pyeongchang, was already capable of accomplishing something special.
Along with short-tracker Maame Biney and men’s long-tracker Shani Davis, Jackson became one of three black athletes to make the U.S. Olympic speedskating team — an accomplishment in which she takes pride.
“It would be nice if it was more common to have people of color in the Winter Olympics,” Jackson said. “But that’s not how it is right now. I hope that I can be someone who other young African-American people can look to and say, ‘Hey, she’s out here doing these sports, maybe I can try it, too.’ ”
But can Jackson make the podium in Pyeongchang? That could be considerably more difficult. South Korea’s Lee Sang-hwa set an Olympic-record time of 37.28 seconds while winning the gold medal at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Unsurprisingly, Jackson has taken everything in stride — including an illness that she said kept her from participating in the ceremonies — and remains focused only on her own improvement.
“I’m trying to focus on my own times and getting better and better every time I go out there,” she said.
Back in Florida, Jackson’s success has meant many things to many people.
For her teammates at Jacksonville Roller Derby, which competes internationally in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, her fist pump and smile upon qualifying brought memories flooding back.
The return trip from a derby weekend in the Midwest sticks out most for Heather Profetto. She remembers Jackson only looked up from her engineering homework to stop for barbecue.
Jackson went on to get a degree in materials science and engineering from the University of Florida while she was becoming a decorated roller-skater. Determination that Jackson shrugs off as if it were ordinary.
“Having that busy schedule kept me on track,” Jackson said. “I think I flow from one thing to another pretty easily when I’m kept busy. It’s normally when I don’t have a lot on my plate I get lazy and lose track of time.”
Lewis watched as her friend accomplished her dreams and thought about the dreams she had as a young girl.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. “Most of us had something in the back of our head where we always dreamed of being an Olympian. I know I did. Watching her making it, oh it was crazy.”
Stephanie Gentz thought back to the day Jackson was tagged with the nickname Baybee. It’s a story the entire team remembers well.
Early in her career with Jacksonville’s all-star roller derby team, Jackson’s squad was facing a team from Philadelphia when an opposing player zeroed in for a brutal hit. The play prompted Gentz to shout: “Nobody puts baby in the corner!”
“I looked at her dead serious and said, ‘You’re our baby. No one touches the baby,’ ” Gentz said. “Since then, she has been our Baybee.”
Jackson plans to rejoin her teammates and continue her roller derby career after her run at the Olympics.
A spot on the 2022 Olympic team and beyond is a real possibility, and roller derby remains a big part of that.
“Roller derby has been great cross-training for me,” said Jackson, whose jammer position requires her to fight through opposing players and score points by racing around the track. “It’s really great interval training being out there for two minutes at a time trying to get through these big walls of blockers.”
So far, there doesn’t seem to be any obstacle — on or off the track — too big for Jackson to test.
Phillip Heilman is a sports writer for the Times-Union in Jacksonville. He can be reach at (904) 359-4063.