U.S. athlete Erin Jackson won gold in speedskating at the Beijing Games, making her the first Black woman to win an individual event in the Winter Olympics.
The 29-year-old, who won by a fraction of a second in Sunday’s 500-meter race, is also the first Black athlete to medal in the discipline at the Olympics.
In the past, gold medalists for this women’s event have largely been from Europe and East Asia. Jackson said she wanted that to change.
“Hopefully we can see more minorities, especially in the USA, getting out and trying some of these winter sports,” she said, according to Team USA, the national Olympic committee for the U.S.
The only other Black athlete to have won gold in an individual event at the Winter Games was Shani Davis, who won the men’s speedskating 1000 meter event at Turin 2006, according to Bill Mallon, an Olympic historian.
Though Jackson is the world’s no. 1 female speedskater, her journey to the Olympics wasn’t always a steady path.
During the qualifying trials for speedskating—an event in which competitors race each other for certain distances—leading up to the Games, Jackson slipped and finished third. She was initially ineligible for a spot on Team USA, as it only had two entries for the 500-meter Olympic event.
But in an act of friendship and sacrifice, Jackson’s teammate Brittany Bowe, who finished first at the trials, gave up her own spot. This allowed Jackson to compete at Beijing, making the 29-year-old the first U.S. woman to win a speedskating gold at the Olympics since 1994.
“Erin has a shot to bring home a medal—hopefully a gold medal—and it’s my honor to give her that opportunity. She’s earned it and she deserves it,” Bowe said about giving up her spot.
After winning the race, Jackson embraced her teammate.
“She made a really big sacrifice for me and I’ll be grateful to her forever,” she said.
Bowe was ultimately allowed to compete, as the United States unexpectedly gained another spot in the 500-meter race from a reallocation by the International Skating Union. She finished fifth.
Jackson first learned to ice skate in 2016. In just a year, she found herself competing in speedskating and even going on to participate in the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, finishing 24th.
In January last year, the Olympian suffered from an eye injury after a bungee cord snapped back and got lodged in her left eye, according to an athlete profile on the official Olympic information portal. Though she missed the World Championships, she returned to the ice two weeks after the incident and quickly rose to be the world’s no. 1 woman speedskater.
After winning on Sunday, Jackson said she was overcome with emotion. “I cried immediately, it was just a big release of emotion,” she said, according to Team USA.
“A lot of shock, a lot of relief and a lot of happiness. I haven’t fully processed everything quite yet, but it just feels amazing,” Jackson said.