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South Jordan Journal

SLCC exercise science student Erin Jackson aiming to repeat speedskating gold medal at 2026 Olympics

Aug 10, 2023 10:59AM ● By Julie Slama

Erin Jackson is the first Black American woman to win a winter Olympic gold medal in an individual sport. She claimed the 500-meter speed skating gold at Beijing in 2022.

“It was a lot of shock, disbelief,” she remembered one year later. “It was surreal. I felt a lot of pride; I saw my dad’s face, then my coach, my teammates, those who supported me along the way. This was a group win, for sure.”

Jackson hopes to add another medal at the 2026 Olympics in Italy. Recently, she took one month off to recover from surgery.

“I get that itch to get out and do something. I’m being active by going for long walks and spending time on the bike. I’m taking it step by step,” she said. “I always tell people to take that first step right because if you think about your goals as these big long-term things like wanting to go to the Olympics that seems like an insurmountable goal. But when you just take that first step to what you’re trying to accomplish, then the next step comes a little easier. Then the next thing you’re snowballing into your goals.”

Jackson is an exercise science student at Salt Lake Community College.

At 30, she already has graduated with honors from the University of Florida’s materials science and engineering program and earned an associate degree from SLCC in computer science.

“I’m a naturally very lazy person. If I don’t have enough things to fill my day, I’ll just sit down and watch TV. I feel like keeping a few things on my plate helps me with time management,” she said. “My career goal is biomechanics; I want to work with prosthetics. I know a lot of Paralympians and I’m always asking questions, trying to figure out the ins and outs of their prosthetics and devices.”

Jackson, who was named United States Olympic Committee Female Athlete of the Year for Roller Sports in 2012 and 2013, followed a lot of skaters who transition to ice to pursue the Olympics. However, she needed some persuasion.

“I didn’t see that in my future. I always thought I’m happy on my skates, my inlines. I hate being cold. Why would I switch over to the ice? I was focused on getting my degree,” she said, remembering she shifted to ice when she was convinced she “could possibly go to the Olympics.”

With four months of speedskating experience on ice, Jackson qualified for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang. In 2021, she became the first Black American woman to win the World Cup in the 500 meters. Her Olympic speed skating gold medal is the first since Chris Witty in 1000 meters in 2002 and the first American woman to win the women’s 500 meters since Bonnie Blair in 1994. 

The student-athlete was part of a keynote panel for the post-COVID-19 return of SLCC’s exercise science conference, sharing her insights with fitness instructors, personal trainers, students and other exercise enthusiasts.

“I don’t really like to eat my vegetables, but if I do, I just douse them in ranch,” Jackson told them. “Dr. Jen told me it doesn’t hurt to do that, just because you’re dousing them doesn’t negate the fact that you’re still getting your nutrients.”

Her diet and exercise are monitored by the U.S. speedskating team. Two members — SLCC Assistant Professor “Dr. Jen” Day, a certified specialist in sports dietetics, and SLCC Associate Professor Carrie Needham, a doctorate who has worked in exercise science for more than 25 years — joined Jackson, describing how they support Olympic excellence.

Day traveled with the speedskating team and watched Jackson win her gold medal.

“It was a really cool moment,” she said. “I was crying and screaming. It felt Erin just brought the whole world together, and everyone celebrated with her. I’m very grateful to be a part of it. It’s probably one of the top 10 experiences of my whole life.”

Day said her role is to pair sports nutrition with the science of exercise physiology and science of nutrition for the 20- to 30-member speed skating team, ages 15 to 36, who not only practice on the ice, but often cross train, biking up Big Cottonwood Canyon in the summer.

“It’s a big difference in fueling needs if they’re out on the bike on a hot day in July compared to doing intervals in a cold, dry environment on ice. There’s a lot of education that goes into teaching them depending on their environment, what kind of training they’re doing, what phase of training there and what their nutrition needs are going to be,” she said.

Day provides healthy diet counseling individually as well as team talks.

“I’m teaching these athletes how to eat a baseline healthy diet,” she said, adding that the team also undergoes regular body composition testing, including girth measurements.

Jackson supports a healthy diet and proper training.

“I wasn’t the best athlete before I joined the skating team,” she said. “I relied mostly on talent so when I came out to Salt Lake City, the coach had all these different ideas about training such as warming up and cooling down. I said that I never warmed up and cooled down. My thoughts around exercise and training changed completely. Now, I’m one of those athletes who always asks a lot of questions. I learn why we’re doing certain things. That’s also why I’m pursuing this degree in exercise science; I feel as a top-level athlete, it’s important to know the science behind what I’m doing every day. I’ve learned fueling can be one thing that people kind of overlook. When it comes to training and being a top-level athlete, people think that you win in the gym, but refueling is one of the most important things. Your muscles are still working and breaking down after training until you refuel them to repair the muscle fibers.”

Day shops and packs food for the athletes and monitors their supplements.

“It is important for them to have access to food that’s going to support their training and I don’t just willy-nilly get everyone on supplements. We supplement based on need,” she said. “I focus on food first. I’d rather them get their vitamin C from a whole orange because it contains carbohydrates, healthy fiber, phytochemicals and antioxidants, right? All of these are perfectly packaged in a little health snack. Where if they take a vitamin C supplement, they’re only getting vitamin C. So, I have a food first approach always.”

By monitoring athletes, she has a better understanding of what is needed.

During the Olympic year, Day noticed Jackson was “getting tired all the time. She needed multiple naps a day. We did some blood work, and it wasn’t surprising to see that her iron levels had tanked.”

With a change of diet and supplements, she was able to increase her level and along with it, Jackson had improved energy.

“We have comprehensive labs so we can see all angles of what’s going on and we have a doctor that provides guidance for us,” Day said. “We work a lot with the physiology of exercise, so we understand what the body is going through when it’s stressed with exercise.”

Needham said that exercise science can support Olympians as well as any population since the concepts are the same.

“I look at how can we take that research and apply it in a real-world setting,” she said, saying it is the same whether it’s for somebody who has a chronic disease and needs to improve their lifestyle through an exercise program or if it’s “training for athletes so that they can improve their time by 1% to make it onto the podium. The job of the exercise or sports scientist is to answer questions from the coach or from the athlete. We can look at research and find answers. We can do testing and find those answers. But when we can answer the questions for the coach and the athletes, then we are giving them valuable information that they can use in their performance.”

Her programs are individualized, matching the physiological profile to the athlete. 

“We have to know what that physiological profile looks like and the type of athlete they are. Do they have more fast twitch muscle fiber or slow twitch muscle fiber? What are the demands of the sport? Is it more of an aerobic sport and they need to be able to do that for long periods of time? Or is it a more explosive sport and they need to have that quick, powerful movement,” she said, adding they run tests, including oxidavitve systems, lactate threshold and aerobic capacity. “That’s valuable information for coaches, for athletes, for a personal trainer, for an exercise therapist, to know what we’re doing is making a difference in that training.”

Jackson said she gives “a solid effort” when it comes to testing.

“Testing is really important because our sports scientists, they use this data to help me achieve my goals,” she said, adding that she also makes sure she gets plenty of rest, stretches and massages her muscles for the next training session. “I used to sleep five to six hours a night because of being a student and staying up late doing homework. I had to work on getting eight hours of sleep a night.”

As Jackson looks ahead to her skating career and the possibility of the Olympics returning to Utah, she’s pumped.

“I’m currently 30 years old and I want to skate forever, but that’s not feasible. I would love to have the Salt Lake Olympics in 2030 and be able to compete on home ice,” she said. “If it’s 2034, I’ll likely be on the sidelines, but I’ll be supporting Salt Lake’s Olympics 100%.” λ