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

WATCH LIVE: U.S. Figure Skating Championships rhythm dance, women’s free skate

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Can Bradie Tennell hold off 14-year-old Alysa Liu? The U.S. Figure Skating Championships crowns its female medalists on Friday, live on NBC Sports.

Action starts with the rhythm dance at 4:30 p.m. ET for NBC Sports Gold subscribers, with NBCSN broadcast coverage joining in at 5. The women start at 7:25 on Gold, with NBC TV coverage starting at 8.

LIVE STREAM: Rhythm dance — Gold | NBCSN | Skate Order
LIVE STREAM: Women’s free skate — Gold | NBC | Skate Order

Tennell topped Thursday’s short program with a clean slate of jumps, plus the highest artistic score.

She bettered Liu in the short program last year, too, but fell in the free skate to take silver. Liu, meanwhile, landed two triple Axels to win by 3.92 points and become the youngest U.S. champion in history.

Another skater to watch is Gracie Gold, the two-time U.S. champion competing at nationals for the first time in three years. Gold, lauded for her return from an eating disorder, depression and anxiety, struggled with jumps in the short and is in 13th place of 18 skaters.

In the rhythm dance, past U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Madison Chock and Evan Bates are expected to begin a duel that should come down to Saturday’s free dance.

Key Skate Times
5:32 p.m. — Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
5:38 — Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
5:44 — Madison Chock/Evan Bates
8:07 — Gracie Gold
10:03 — Karen Chen
10:11 — Amber Glenn
10:27 — Bradie Tennell
10:35 — Mariah Bell
10:43 — Alysa Liu

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NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, who defected, eyes Tokyo Games as German or refugee

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LÜNEN, Germany (AP) — Iran’s only female Olympic medalist said Friday she wants to compete for Germany after defecting from her native country.

Kimia Alizadeh is trying to rebuild her life and career after she announced this month she had left Iran, citing sexism on the part of officials there.

“Even if I do not make it to the Olympics, it does not matter because I have made up my mind,” Alizadeh said at a meeting with journalists at a taekwondo club.

“I am sure that I will be judged by many, but I am just 21 years old and can attend world tournaments and future Olympics. However, I will spare no effort to get the best result at this time as well.”

She added she doesn’t expect ever to compete in Iran again.

Alizadeh was just 18 when she won bronze in taekwondo at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, catapulting her to instant fame at home. Despite Iran’s long history of victories in men’s wrestling and weightlifting, no Iranian woman had ever won a medal before.

However, Alizadeh was frustrated with life in Iran despite her Olympic success. In an Instagram post this month announcing she had left Iran, she accused Iranian officials of sexism and criticized wearing the mandatory hijab headscarf.

Alizadeh hasn’t given up hope of being able to compete at this year’s Olympics in Tokyo. However, getting there would require highly unusual exemptions from the usual rules on nationality switches and qualification, regardless of whether she tries to represent Germany or the International Olympic Committee’s refugee team.

Alizadeh spent time in the Netherlands before heading to Germany this week to meet with taekwondo officials there. The German Taekwondo Union has spoken up in favor of Alizadeh staying in the country in what it calls a first step toward her gaining nationality and becoming eligible to compete for Germany.

“If the German government assists me and I can go through this process as fast as possible, I might be able to make it to the Olympics, too,” she said.

In recent years, many Iranian athletes have left their country, citing government pressure. In September, the former world judo champion Saeed Mollaei moved to Germany after walking off the Iranian team at the world championships in Japan. He said Iranian officials had tried to force him to withdraw so as not to compete against an Israeli opponent.

Alireza Faghani, an Iranian international soccer referee, also left Iran for Australia last year.

Alizadeh said she just wants “a peaceful life,” and she’s not looking back.

“I have a great feeling to have made a decision for my life that would definitely change my future,” she said. “I think it is not even clear enough now and. in the years to come, I will understand what a good decision I made.”

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MORE: Full list of U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics