Five-ring Circus

Can Erin Jackson Lead the U.S. Back to Speedskating Glory?

Her triumphant gold in Beijing was the exception for a program that’s fallen far from its glory days.

Erin jackson skating, smiling, and carrying an American flag above her head.
Jackson celebrates her victory in the women’s 500 meters at the Winter Olympics, at the National Speed Skating Oval in Beijing on Sunday. Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

On Sunday in Beijing, American speedskater Erin Jackson added to Team USA’s Winter Games medal count by narrowly beating out Japan’s Miho Takagi to win gold in a thrilling 500-meter race. With her victory, Jackson became the first American woman to win Olympic speedskating gold since Bonnie Blair did so in the same event at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Jackson also gave Team USA its first individual Olympic long-track speedskating medal, period, since the 2010 Vancouver Games. Perhaps most important of all, Jackson’s gold may help put to rest the question that has plagued American sports fans for a decade now: What the hell happened to U.S. Speedskating?

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America has won more cumulative medals in speedskating than in any other Winter Olympic sport. Skaters such as Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen, Shani Davis, and Apolo Anton Ohno were marquee members of their Olympic squads, and occasionally become crossover celebrities; Ohno, you may recall, won Dancing with the Stars in 2007.  In 2010 at Vancouver, where Davis captured gold in the 1,000 meters, American skaters won 10 medals across all speedskating and short track speedskating events, making them key contributors to Team USA’s record-setting medal haul that year.

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And then, in 2014, something changed. Though the United States brought a strong team to Sochi, including four-time medalist Davis; two-time short-track medalist J.R. Celski; and Brittany Bowe, who held the world record in the women’s 1,000-meter race, Team USA may as well have just given Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn some skates and told them to do their best. In Sochi, American speedskaters won no individual medals and just one team medal, a silver in the men’s 5,000-meter short track speedskating relay. It wasn’t as if the Americans were pulling up just short in the individual events, either: Team USA only logged two fourth-place finishes, both in short track events. The other American skaters finished well off the podium, across the board.

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There was no shortage of fingers being pointed during and after the Sochi Games. Much criticism was leveled at the purportedly high-performance Under Armour racing suits that the U.S. speedskaters wore, with the implication being that they had actually turned out to be low-performance racing suits. Midway through the Olympics, the team switched back to the old suits they’d worn at that year’s World Cup—only to keep finishing off the podium.

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Maybe the suits weren’t the problem so much as the suits were the problem? In an interview after finishing dead last in the 5,000-meter race, U.S. speedskater Maria Lamb blasted former U.S. Speedskating executive director Mark Greenwald, claiming that he had “caused a lot of damage to the organization by treating people wrong or just outright pushing them out.” Lamb also slammed U.S. Speedskating’s long-track performance director, Finn Halvorsen, whom she claimed had “single-handedly perhaps destroyed so many good athletes, at least their performance here at the Games, due to a lot of his calls and actions.”

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At the time that Lamb went scorched-earth on the execs, Greenwald had already been replaced by marketing executive Ted Morris. Two months after Sochi, Halvorsen was out, too. With new leadership and a fresh attitude, U.S. Speedskating quickly righted the ship, and we all watched with great joy as America’s speediest skaters returned to their traditional dominance at the 2018 Winter Games.

Just kidding! Compared to their prior dominance, the speedskaters of Team USA sucked almost as much in Pyeongchang as they’d sucked in Sochi! The Americans won a single team speedskating medal, a bronze in women’s team pursuit, and a single individual short track medal, won by John-Henry Krueger, who took silver in the 1,000-meter race. But, hey, it could’ve been worse, right? At least Team USA had one individual medalist whom they could build around for the future, right? Wrong. Two months after the Pyeongchang Games ended, Krueger promptly announced that he would renounce his affiliation with Team USA and would be skating on behalf of Hungary in all future international competitions.

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“I was and am still proud to have represented the United States during my career but have been faced with an unsustainable situation where if I continue pursuing my career with the U.S. team I will bankrupt myself and my family,” Krueger told USA Today in an email explaining his decision. By switching to Hungary, Krueger announced, “I will be able to pay for basic necessities like groceries, rent, apartment furnishings, clothes and equipment without putting myself and my family in debt.” In a Facebook post, Krueger’s mother noted that “JH did not leave his country, but is leaving the federation that callously abandoned him on so many fronts long ago and then refused to thoughtfully consider any of JH’s concerns, opinions, and requirements.”

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Krueger’s departure was a bad thing for the U.S. short track squad. Luckily, executive director Morris had a plan. That plan was to hire a new short track coach, Netherlands native Wilma Boomstra, whom he would then have to fire three years later, after several U.S. skaters filed complaints accusing her of being verbally, mentally, and emotionally abusive. In a piece for the Red Bulletin, an online magazine published by Red Bull, U.S. speedskater Maame Biney told Tracy Ross that, “in the 15 or 16 years I’ve skated, I’ve never felt like actual shit, like this coach hates me.” “If she doesn’t like the way you’re skating, she’ll call you an embarrassment,” one skater told the Washington Post in 2020; others noted that Boomstra regularly called her skaters “pussies.”

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In response, Morris told the Post that “I think we need to have a little sympathy for someone where English is a second language,” and that, in such a situation, “You revert to the few tools you have in the toolbox.” Surprisingly, that stirring defense of the mean coach whom everybody hated didn’t ease any tensions, and U.S. Speedskating finally fired Boomstra last March, right around the time when an Olympics-bound team in desperate need of redemption ideally would not be firing its short-track coach.

Despite the tumult and turnover, at the beginning of 2022, American speedskating fans somehow did not feel terrible about Team USA’s chances going into Beijing. Joey Mantia sat atop the World Cup rankings for the men’s 1,500-meter race; Brittany Bowe led the World Cup rankings for the women’s 1,000-meter race and sat in second place for the 1,500-meter race. The most exciting medal prospect of all, perhaps, was Erin Jackson. When Jackson skated for Team USA in Pyeongchang, she was a longtime inline roller skater who had been skating on ice for fewer than six months. Within that context, her 24th-place finish in the 500-meter at those Olympics was actually a huge accomplishment! Four years later, Jackson topped the World Cup standings for the women’s 500-meter event, meaning that she had a great chance of bringing home some speedskating gold in her signature race. USA! USA!

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And then the U.S. Olympic Team Trials happened in Milwaukee in January, and Jackson came in third in the 500-meter, and thus initially did not qualify to skate the race for America in Beijing. During the time trial, Jackson slipped and lost some speed, thus creating an opening for teammates Bowe and Kimi Goetz to beat her to the finish line. Though U.S. Speedskating rules state that an athlete who falls during a time trial may be granted a reskate, the fact that Jackson stayed on her feet meant that she was stuck with the time she got. Sorry, Erin! Keep at it, and we’ll see you in 2026! USA! USA!

Wait, no—that’s actually terrible. Why in the world would U.S. Speedskating structure its qualification process in a manner that might end up excluding the top-ranked skater in the world in an event if that skater has a bad day at time trials? As NBC Sports noted, if Jackson had been an alpine skier instead of a speedskater, she wouldn’t have even had to compete in any time trials, as her world ranking would have qualified her for the Olympics on its own. After Jackson fell short at trials, the long-track program director for U.S. Speedskating told the AP that there was nothing “that can be done rule-wise to get her into the Olympics,” and that it “really is winner-take-all here at the Olympic trials.”

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But that’s incredibly stupid! It makes very little sense for Olympic qualification to come down to one race, rather than a skater’s cumulative body of work over the course of a year. My understanding of the Olympic speedskating qualification process is that the International Skating Union allocates entry slots per race, per country, based on a country’s recent World Cup performance; then, it’s up to each individual country’s skating federations to decide who will fill their allocated slots. It seems to me that it should be well within U.S. Speedskating’s power to create a system by which the best skaters in a given event get to go and skate at the Olympics, not just the ones who did good one day during one single artificially important race. Doesn’t that make more sense?

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Brittany Bowe thought so, which is why she unilaterally decided to give up her spot in the Olympic 500-meter race so that Jackson could skate instead. (Bowe ended up going to the Olympics in the 500 anyway when another quota spot opened up for Team USA; she finished 16th out of 30 racers.) Bowe’s sacrifice was a heartwarming moment, one that was worthy of all the attention that it received—and, in light of Jackson’s gold medal, it was the right move to make. But Bowe shouldn’t have had to have been the one to make it. The decadelong garbage fire that is U.S. Speedskating should never have created a situation where an individual skater would be forced to sacrifice her own ambitions so that the best athlete could skate in a given event.

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Jackson’s gold medal is a real accomplishment. But it’s hard to call it indisputable evidence that U.S. Speedskating is back on track. As of this writing, Jackson’s gold medal is the only medal that the U.S. has won in Beijing in either speedskating or short-track speedskating, though Bowe still has yet to skate in the 1,000-meter. Twelve years after Team USA won 10 long-track and short-track medals in Vancouver, America’s once-proud international tradition in the sport remains at a low ebb. To this casual observer, it’s clear that the problems are systemic, just as it’s clear that bringing in a Dutch hardass to yell at everyone was not the way to revitalize the program. While the glory days of Davis, Ono, Jansen, and Blair are long behind us, in Erin Jackson Team USA once again has a dominant skater who might help restore speedskating to the spotlight. It’s now up to U.S. Speedskating to follow that light out of the darkness in which it has wandered for so long.

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