Erin Jackson goes from Ocala Cannibals to U.S. Olympic team

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WEST ALLIS, Wis. (AP) — Erin Jackson surprised herself and almost everyone else at the U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Trials, becoming an Olympian after just four months on ice.

Coming from inline skating, Jackson qualified in the 500m by finishing third behind Sochi Olympians 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 from Ocala, Fla. (same hometown as Bowe and another Olympic skater, Joey Mantia), 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 black athlete to make the U.S. Olympic speed skating team. She joins fellow long-tracker Shani Davis and short-tracker Maame Biney, who is originally from Ghana.

Jackson is a former University of Florida engineering student and roller derby player for the Ocala Cannibals and Jacksonville RollerGirls.

Bowe and Bergsma had already earned spots in PyeongChang by finishing one-two in the 1000m, 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 500m to his schedule after making his third Olympic team in the 1000m.

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 his second Olympic team by finishing second at 35.22 after missing out in the 1000m 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.

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MORE: U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Trials TV Schedule

Rafael Nadal can tie Roger Federer’s Slam record with 13th French Open

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For all of the many qualities contributing to Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented superiority at the French Open — the bullwhip of a high-bouncing lefty forehand, the reflex returns, the cover-every-corner athleticism, the endless energy and grit — there’s one element that stands above all the rest.

According to the opponent Nadal beat in the last two finals in Paris, anyway.

“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” Thiem said. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”

When main-draw competition begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Thiem and every other player in the men’s bracket will be pursuing Nadal as the 34-year-old from Spain pursues history.

If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship — extending his own record for the most singles trophies won by anyone at any major tennis tournament — he would, more significantly, also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer’s record for a man.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Nadal’s tally elsewhere: four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open.

He spoke Friday in Paris about what “probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros” — a lack of matches in 2020; a new brand of tennis balls (“super slow, heavy”); cooler weather and plenty of rain in the forecast.

“But you know what?” Nadal said. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.”

Asked recently about the possibility of catching the 39-year-old Federer, out for the rest of the season after a pair of operations on his right knee, Nadal expressed a sentiment he’s uttered before.

Climbing the Grand Slam list, Nadal said, is “not an obsession at all.”

“I know that you put a lot of attention on all of this,” he replied when the topic was raised last week at the Italian Open, Nadal’s first tournament since February because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it. If I am playing well, I know I normally have my chances. If not, going to be impossible. That’s it.”

There is, of course, another great of the game playing during this era and, like Nadal, gaining on Federer.

That would be No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had won five of seven major titles to raise his total to 17 before being disqualified at the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover.

In this oddest of years, the Grand Slam season will drawing to a close in France; the clay-court major was postponed from May until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Roland Garros is the last Slam, the last opportunity of this season. So we all know who the main favorite is there: Obviously, it’s Nadal. And everything that he has achieved there, losing maybe a couple matches in his entire career on that court … is probably the most impressive record that anybody has on any court,” Djokovic said. “So, yeah, of course you would put him right there in front as a favorite to win it.”

For the record: Nadal has won 93 of 95 matches in the French Open and his last 21 in a row.

So what makes him so dominant there?

“He’s an unbelievably great tennis player. Probably on clay, a little bit better than on the other surfaces,” Thiem said. “He’s left-handed, which makes it very uncomfortable. And then his forehand, the topspin on the clay, it’s cruel to play.”

Thiem takes notes and hopes to emulate aspects of Nadal’s game.

So do others.

In Rome, for example, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep and one of her coaches, Artemon Apostu-Efremov, caught one of Nadal’s training sessions.

“We were watching the way he hits the ball, the acceleration, the energy he has on the court and the way he practices 100%. It’s always an inspiration,” Apostu-Efremov said.

“This dedication on the court and focus on court,” he said, “it’s something that, for sure, could be transferred to Simona.”

Nadal wound up losing his third match in Italy, which is neither ideal form nor the sort of prep work he is accustomed to ahead of Roland Garros.

Still, Nadal at the French Open is unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

“Regardless of how he feels, I’m sure he’ll find a way,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist seeded No. 5 in Paris. “He always finds a way, every single year. Clay is his surface. I’m sure he’s going to do well.”

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Skate America will not have fans

Skate America
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Skate America, the top annual international figure skating competition held in the U.S., will not have spectators in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

U.S. Figure Skating said the restriction was “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in strict accordance with the Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines.”

Skate America is the first top-level event of the season, kicking off the six-stop Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is scheduled this season for Beijing.

The series has already been modified to restrict fields to skaters from the host country or to the event closest to their training location.

Grand Prix fields have not been announced, though two-time world champion Nathan Chen said last month he hoped to go for a fourth straight Skate America title.

Chen trains in California. Most, if not all, top U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada, which means they will compete in Skate America or Skate Canada if they participate in the Grand Prix Series at all.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough to compete on the Grand Prix until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

Skaters are limited to one Grand Prix start this season. In past seasons, they’ve typically competed twice.

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