Erin Jackson on Beijing Olympics: ‘I feel like it’s the beginning’

Erin Jackson at the 2022 Winter Olympics
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BEIJING (AP) — Erin Jackson shocked herself by making the U.S. Olympic team four years ago. Barely confident of staying upright after just four months on the ice, she was just happy to be in Pyeongchang. Now, she’s the favorite for speedskating gold in Beijing.

“This time around I’m coming in swinging and I’ve got my sights set,” she said.

The former inline and roller derby skater from balmy Ocala, Florida, has made huge strides since 2018, when she finished 24th in the 500 meters in South Korea.

Jackson became the first Black woman to win a World Cup race in November. She took four of this season’s eight races in the 500, medaled in two others and is No. 1 in the world in the sprint race, which seemingly made her a lock for the Olympic team.

A slip of her blade nearly did her in. She stumbled mid-race at the U.S. trials in early January and finished third. Only the top two were guaranteed berths, leaving Jackson sleepless that night wondering if her dream had been dashed.

Brittany Bowe wouldn’t hear of it. Bowe, a close friend of Jackson, gave up her spot in the 500. Bowe will compete in the event on Sunday, too, after the U.S. picked up a third quota spot.

How to watch Erin Jackson compete in speed skating at the 2022 Winter Olympics:

Speed Skating Event Date/Time (U.S. Eastern) Date/Time (Beijing)
Women’s 500m 2/13/22 8:00 AM 2/13/22 9:00 PM

No American woman has won the 500 since Bonnie Blair claimed three straight Olympic titles from 1988-1994. The last individual medal of any kind by a U.S. woman came in 2002.

“Erin is absolutely on the top of her game now,” Bowe said. “I cannot wait to see what she has in store.”

Neither can coach Renee Hildebrand, who will be watching from Florida.

Jackson and Bowe, along with teammate Joey Mantia, are all from Ocala and grew up training as inline skaters on two wheels under Hildebrand before transitioning to ice.

“Erin’s technique is still not what she wants it to be on ice,” Hildebrand said. “She’s really quick right now. Eventually, she’s going to be really quick and really good with her technique. I think she will break some records.”

Jackson began skating at age 10, quickly transforming into a self-described rink rat. She looked up to Bowe, who at 33 is four years older.

“This just makes it so much sweeter,” Jackson said of Bowe’s gesture. “It makes it 10 times more awesome.”

MORE SPEED SKATING COVERAGE: Erin Jackson will compete at Olympics after teammate Bowe gives up spot (video)

Jackson’s stumble is one of several obstacles she has overcome. In 2019, she endured back problems. Then she missed the entire 2020-21 season because of COVID-19 quarantines for being a close contact and because of an eye injury caused by a bungee cord snapping loose.

Through it all, Jackson kept the same composure she showed after her slip at trials.

“She’s a class act through everything,” said Matt Kooreman, national sprint coach for US Speedskating.

Jackson describes herself as more of a student than an athlete. She certainly has the credentials, having graduated with honors from the University of Florida in 2015 with a degree in materials science and engineering. She earned an associate’s degree in computer science and is working toward another associate’s in kinesiology.

“I couldn’t imagine not taking every opportunity I can to better my education,” she said. “I value education so much.”

Jackson took a year off from classes to prepare for the Olympics, but she’s missing the academic grind.

“I’m better all around when I’m a little busier,” she said. “Right now, I feel like I’ve gotten really lazy.”

MORE ON ERIN JACKSON’S SUCCESS: Speed skater Erin Jackson sprints to first career World Cup win (video)

Among her many goals is increasing diversity in a sport dominated by white athletes. She has reached out to Edge Outdoors, a Washington state non-profit that provides scholarships to cultivate women of color in snow sports, about possibly starting a Utah chapter.

“Young girls are writing to her. She’s enjoying that part of it now,” Hildebrand said. “She’s understanding that she can make history in more ways than one. We need more diversity in our sport, both inline and on ice. To see skaters of all different colors would be great.”

The racial reckoning that took hold in the U.S. after George Floyd was murdered by police in 2020 helped lay the groundwork for change decades in the making in sports. Jackson has her own thoughtful approach.

“I stay out of all the things that are going on like that. I feel that, of course, because it’s something you can’t really escape,” she said. “But I try to help by being a positive example. There’s a lot of negativity in the world and I try to fight it by being an example of something good.”

One of her inspirations is her 72-year-old father, Tracy. He moved to Salt Lake City from Florida last June to live with his only daughter. Her mother, Rita, died in 2011 when Jackson was a senior in high school.

“He means a lot to me,” Jackson said. “I’ve always been a daddy’s girl. Just having his love here and now, it’s like I never left.”

Jackson’s evolution from the rough-and-tough pack skating of roller derby on four wheels to racing on blades in a pair against the clock has been gradual. Her coach Ryan Shimabukuro got her biking, lifting weights and dry-land training, things she’d never done as an inliner.

“The ice is so much more technical,” Shimabukuro said. “You make one mistake, you can lose 10 spots, especially in the 500 meters where the smallest margin is a thousandth of a second.”

Jackson has proven a quick study, to the point where Shimabukuro has had to tell her to knock off wearing herself out.

“She’s a game-day racer,” he said. “That’s one of her biggest attributes. No matter what the situation is on the day of the race she can up her level.”

A lifelong learner, Jackson figures she’s still early in her education on ice.

“I can’t see myself stopping now when I’m just figuring out what I’m doing,” she said. “I feel like it’s the beginning.”

MORE SPEED SKATING COVERAGE: Speed skater Wuest is first athlete to win individual gold at five Olympics

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”