First and Fastest: How Olympic Gold Medalist Erin Jackson impacts the local roller sports community – WUFT

For the 37.04 seconds it took Erin Jackson to glide across the ice, some held their breath while others cheered. Either way, the local roller sports community rooted wholeheartedly for their Marion County mentor half a world away. 

She delivered.

The 29-year-old from Ocala made history as the first Black woman to win an individual medal in speedskating after finishing first in the 500-meter event. 

Before Jackson was a champion on blades, she excelled on wheels. Because inline skating is not offered at the Olympic level, some skaters make the switch to ice to fulfill their Olympic aspirations.

Jackson was one of three Ocala speed skaters competing in Beijing whose journey started with competitive inline skating coach Renee Hildebrand. With all three of her former athletes medaling, Hildebrand, 59, hopes their success heightens interest in the Ocala Speed Inline Racing Team she coaches with Richard “Spanky” Hawkins.

“Everyone’s excited about speedskating right now, and hopefully we can use that to get people into the rink,” she said. 

Ocala Speed is a young team with most skaters under the age of 14. Hildebrand says the program’s goal is to build the sport from the bottom up. She believes that as inline skating continues to gain traction, more Olympic speed skaters will emerge.

Chad Ankney usually spends five to six days of the week watching his 13-year-old son, Brady, practice. He said most kids dream of the ice but strive to make the junior and senior world inline team first. When skaters are looking to take the next step, they tend to make a transition to the ice to speed skate.

When he sees his son explode around the bend, Ankney reflects on how the three Ocala Olympians, who used to skate at the same rinks under the same coaching as his son, impacts local skaters. 

“They all know they started here,” he said. “They all know they started at the rink.”

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Brady Ankney (in blue) skating a practice lap at Ocala’s Brick City Adventure Park. Every Saturday, there is an outdoor training where skaters from across the state are invited to practice. Hildebrand hopes this will build the sport. (Ashley Hearn/WUFT News)

Leona Newman, 12, started skating with Ocala Speed five years ago. To her, it’s inspiring to see Jackson peak as an inline skater and then grow as an ice racer. 

Newman had been roller skating for about a year when Jackson qualified for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics only four months after trading wheels for blades. 

Jackson’s Olympic career took off, and Newman was there from the start. 

The aura of athleticism and ease Jackson displays on the ice fills Newman with hope that she, too, will top the podium one day.

“If I follow her steps, I think I will be able to get where she is,” Newman said.

Leona Newman (left) works in practice toward her goal of getting faster. Last year, Newman placed 3rd in the nation for elementary girls inline speedskating. (Ashley Hearn/WUFT News)

Inline is not the only roller sport Jackson is passionate about. While she is now known globally for dominating the ice, members of the Jacksonville Roller Derby league, like Melanie Devlin, have admired her long before her triumph in Beijing. 

“Every time I see a story about how cool she is I feel like, ‘Yeah, that’s right! She totally is, and now the world knows it, too,’” Devlin said.

Devlin, 38, lives in Gainesville and cherishes the carpool rides she shared with Jackson when they were teammates on the New Jax City Rollers. She said Jackson never made her accomplishments a big deal. One day, she would be winning inline competitions on the global stage. The next, she would be taking her turn to drive to roller derby practice.

Devlin remembers getting into Jackson’s car only to sit on something hard. It was a medal, a testament to how Jackson worked to balance her busy and successful career with an outlet that was fun and provided cross training.

She said Jackson humbly apologized and told her to throw it in the back.

Stephanie Bratz takes a selfie with her former teammate Erin Jackson, who she only refers to as“Baybee.” The nickname was given to Jackson during her first season on the New Jax City Rollers as she was one of the youngest skaters on the team. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Bratz)

Even though Jackson medaled in an individual sport, she and other members of the Ocala speedskating community still work as a team. Fellow Marion County speedskater and friend Brittany Bowe, 33,  sacrificed her spot in the 500-meter race after Jackson slipped in Olympic trials

Bowe was able to regain her spot after an additional one opened up, but her act of kindness was a fundamental part of Jackson’s gold medal endeavor. 

Both skaters now return home as decorated Olympians.

Jackson is an Olympian, a jammer, a pioneer, a record holder and a scholar. But overall, she is a role model. And to her, that’s most important.

“If I can impact just one little girl’s dream, then that is even better than gold to me,” Jackson wrote on Twitter.

Back on the rink in Ocala, she succeeded.

“I feel like anything really is possible now especially because she won the gold,” Newman said. “It’s going to make me want to push even harder than I have been just so I can chase that dream.”