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At Beijing Olympics, speedskater Erin Jackson looks for her second chance

Erin Jackson of the United States smiles after winning the Women's 500m Division A race during the ISU World Cup Speed Skating on Nov. 12, 2021 in Tomaszow Mazowiecki, Poland. (Boris Streubel/Getty Images)
Erin Jackson of the United States smiles after winning the Women's 500m Division A race during the ISU World Cup Speed Skating on Nov. 12, 2021 in Tomaszow Mazowiecki, Poland. (Boris Streubel/Getty Images)

Olympics athletes are starting to arrive in Beijing ahead of the opening ceremony on Friday. But one U.S. superstar nearly didn’t make it.

Speedskater Erin Jackson was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 500m. In January, she slipped during her qualifying race in Milwaukee and failed to make the Olympic team.

But her friend since childhood and teammate Brittany Bowe, who did qualify for the event, dropped out of the race so Jackson could attend the Olympics.

The slip happened in the blink of an eye, costing Jackson a few tenths of a second. Jackson says she still doesn’t know how it happened. The straight portion of the track was “the worst place” for her to slip as opposed to turning around the corner where she could have recovered her stride, she says.

In the moment, “I just tried to refocus the best I could,” she says. “I could hear Brittany Bowe … just shouting, ‘Get back into it, just skate.’ So that’s what I tried to do in that moment, trying to salvage as much as I could.”

To a casual observer, a few tenths of a second doesn’t sound like much. But that’s how razor thin the margins are in speedskating. It can be the difference between winning and not even making the top 10, Jackson says.

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At the time, she didn’t realize her slip would cause her to miss making the 500m Olympic team. Speedskating rules say if a skater falls, they get another chance, known as a re-skate. But no one wants to fall even if granted a re-skate, Jackson says, so she’s happy she caught herself.

Bowe gave up her spot in the 500m so Jackson could be bumped up a position to qualify for the Olympics. “After that unfortunate slip, I knew in my mind before that night was even over that if it had to come down to a decision of mine, she could have my place,” Bowe told NBC Sports.

The meaning of Bowe’s selfless gesture is hard for Jackson to put into words. Jackson didn’t get teary eyed during the slip or the post-race interviews, but when Bowe sat down to comfort her, “it was a really emotional moment,” Jackson says.

Bowe told Jackson the team wasn’t “going to leave me home,” Jackson says.

“[Bowe] said it’s not a big deal, like anyone would have done it. And of course, I would have done the same if the roles were reversed,” Jackson says. “I’m really lucky that she did that for me.”

Jackson has something in the works to return the favor but right now, it’s a secret, she says.

As the saying goes: What goes around, comes around. Bowe’s generous act of sportsmanship has already caught up to her. The U.S. team ended up getting a third starting spot in the 500m for the Olympics — meaning Bowe is back in the race.

Slips happen, Jackson says. She won’t dwell on it in Beijing.

“I don’t think it’s something that I need to focus on or try to prevent in the future,” she says. “It’s like either it’s going to happen or it’s not.”

She’s confident due to her aggressive training and coaching that she’ll show up on race day ready to go, she says.

Jackson, the best in the world at her sport, says speedskating feels automatic. Growing up, she roller skated as a hobby, something that eventually became her sport. “I just always felt comfortable on skates,” she says.

So when the gun goes off on the rink and she begins flying around the track, she says “everything feels right.”

Devan Schwartz produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleySerena McMahon adapted it for the web

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.