From ‘Special Forces’ To Pan Am Games, Olympic Champion Erin Jackson Keeps Powering Ahead
by Paul D. Bowker
The world moves fast for Olympic Gold medalist Erin Jackson.
She’s the defending Olympic Champion in the fastest event that exists in long track speed skating, the 500m. Just this past weekend, she won Gold in the 500m in inline skating at the 2023 Pan American Games, the sport she grew up competing in as a kid in Ocala, Florida.
And now, she’s a TV star in the toughest reality show on air, Fox’s “Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test,” Known by a recruit number, Jackson and other celebrity contestants are put through mental and physical challenges to test their reliability, fortitude and pure grit.
“I wouldn’t really call it a fun experience,” Jackson said. “I don’t think it was meant to be fun.”
For the first time in her life, she wound up in a fight with another recruit. Hand to hand combat with a one-word instruction: “Kill!” In the most recent episode, she dangled on a rope 200ft above the ground to cross a ravine.
Jackson said the experience has made her realize, “I’m tougher than I thought I was.” The filming was an exercise in endurance, but Jackson’s no stranger to overcoming challenges.
Coming off her breakout Olympic season, she was dealing with persistent back issues and still managed to earn four World Cup medals and a Silver with the U.S. Team Sprint at the World Championships in 2022. She joined the show because she felt certain she had what it took to succeed.
The program began airing in late September and continues each Monday night with Jackson among the remaining 7 contestants. The season finale is Nov. 27.
For Jackson, even finding time to watch the Monday night episodes is a challenge.
Two weeks ago, she won the 500m title and finished third in the 1000m at the US Speedskating Long Track US Championships in Milwaukee, solidifying her place on the Fall World Cup Team. From there, Jackson headed to Santiago, Chile, for the inline skating competition at the 2023 Pan American Games, where this past weekend she won Gold in the 500m and Bronze in the 200m.
But there’s no time to rest for Jackson. She packed up her medals, then hopped on a plane to Asia, where the speedskating World Cup season begins this weekend in Obihiro, Japan.
Her expectations for herself are high. “This season I’m hoping to get back on the podium a bit more” Jackson said. “Last season I struggled quite a bit. Hopefully this year I’ll be back on the podium more consistently and again at the World Championships.”
The podium has always been the goal, especially since Jackson transitioned to ice with the help of Ocala-based coach and Team Florida founder Rene Hildebrand following Jackson’s graduation from the University of Florida in 2015.
“She (Hildebrand) always helped us with this belief in ourselves,” Jackson said. “Once I dipped my foot into ice skating I kind of adopted the mindset of, not if I can make it to the top but how long would it take? That’s the mindset I wanted to have. I didn’t want to have it as a question. I wanted to just think, when will this happen?”
It’s that same mindset that led Jackson to “Special Forces.” Among the other contestants is retired U.S. alpine skier Bode Miller, a six-time Olympic medalist.
“This show was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “But really rewarding, especially in hindsight. Thinking back, I feel like we were all really lucky to be able to go through something like that. Not many people get to say they’ve had that experience. It was definitely hard, but there were some really big takeaways. Everything we got to do, the people we got to meet, and getting to learn from the toughest people on the planet.”
The show was filmed in a mountainous region of New Zealand during winter months for the southern hemisphere, and contestants were faced with being submerged in freezing waters and hiked military style up a snowcapped mountain in icy temperatures.
When Jackson is not chasing speed skating medals and extreme challenges, she takes classes as a part of US Speedskating’s partnership with Salt Lake Community College (SLCC). Education is important for the 31-year-old, who majored in materials science and engineering at Florida. She has since earned an associate degree in computer science at SLCC, and is pursuing additional degrees in kinesiology, and business and finance.
“I’ve just always been interested in learning,” Jackson said. “Now that we have the partnership (with SLCC), I get to explore the things that I’ve always been curious about and have the tuition covered. That’s a really good perk of being on the team here.”
One of her professors is Dr. Jen Day, who teaches nutrition and is a dietitian for US Speedskating.
“It’s pretty cool to get to learn from her at the (Utah Olympic) Oval and then also in the classroom,” Jackson said.
Education and reality show aside, Jackson is determined and focused for the Olympic Winter Games Milano Cortina 2026 and for the upcoming World Cup and World Championships season.
“I’m really excited for the season with my team,” she said. “Everyone on the team has been performing really well. I’m really excited to see how my teammates do. I think it’s going to be a good year for everyone.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to USSpeedskating.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.