ABOVE PHOTO: Erin Jackson reacts after competing in the women’s 500 meters during the U.S. Olympic long track speedskating trials, Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/John Locher)
By Beth Harris
MILWAUKEE–Erin Jackson surprised herself and almost everyone else at the U.S. speedskating trials, becoming a first-time Olympian after just four months on ice.
Coming from the world of inline skating, Jackson qualified in the 500 meters by finishing third behind veterans Brittany Bowe and Heather Bergsma.
Bowe had the fastest time over two heats Friday night. She was quicker in her first run around the big oval, clocking 37.95 seconds. Her second run was 38.18.
Bergsma also was quicker in her first heat at 38.24. Her second trip was 38.42.
Jackson was just the opposite.
The 25-year-old skater from Ocala, Florida, went 39.22 in her first heat. She was even better in her second run, going 39.04.
“I really wasn’t expecting any of this, just coming in as a newbie, just trying to do the best I can,’’ she said, smiling. “I still don’t even know.’’
Jackson becomes the third African-American to make the U.S. speedskating team for the Olympics next month. She joins fellow long-tracker Shani Davis and short-tracker Maame Biney, who is originally from Ghana.
Bowe and Bergsma had already earned spots in Pyeongchang by finishing 1-2 in the 1,000, so doubling up in another event cleared the way for Jackson to join them.
Her previous personal best was 39.51 set Dec. 23 in the high-altitude of Salt Lake City.
“A couple weeks ago, I was still in the 40s,’’ Jackson said. “I think I hadn’t even broken 40 (seconds) yet, so it’s all happened really fast.’’
Bowe is a former inline skater from Ocala and has been a teammate of Jackson’s for several years.
“She’s improving dramatically every time she steps on that ice,’’ Bowe said. “She’s at a point now where she can make those huge gains, so to see that two races in a row out here when the pressure is the highest is really promising for her and the sprint program for Team USA.’’
On the men’s side, Mitch Whitmore added the 500 to his schedule after making his third Olympic team in the 1,000.
He skated fastest in his first heat at 35.06. But Whitmore had slow reactions in both heats.
“I’ve got a lot of room for improvement still,’’ he said. “It’s more stressful here than at World Cups or other big competitions just because you have to make the team and there’s expectations of being a favorite going into this competition.’’
Jonathan Garcia made the team by finishing second at 35.22 after missing out in the 1,000 earlier in the week.
Kimani Griffin, a former inliner, was third at 35.26 and is expected to make the team depending on other skaters doubling up in events.
Blair Cruikshank, the teenage daughter of five-time Olympic champion Bonnie Blair, finished 15th among 18 skaters in the 500. She had identical times of 42.21 in both heats, which was a personal best.
“I’m pretty excited and I’m sure she’s over there having a ton of fun also,’’ Blair said, referring to her mom, who shook a blue cowbell and yelled for her daughter to “stay down!’’ as Blair sprinted around the big oval. Blair is coached by her father, four-time Olympian Dave Cruikshank.
Blair’s goal is to make the 2022 Olympic team.
“This was just experience,’’ she said. “Hopefully, with the next one I can come out here and make the team, but I still have a long ways to go to get there.’’