Only two Black Americans had won an individual medal in nearly a century of Winter Olympics before this week. It took less than 24 hours for Erin Jackson and Elana Meyers Taylor to double that list.
When Jackson ended a couple of lengthy speed skating medal droughts for the United States in a sport they once dominated by winning Sunday night’s women’s 500m, the roller derby skater from central Florida became the first Black woman from any country to win an individual gold in a Winter Olympics event according to the Olympedia.org website, the most comprehensive database about the Olympic Games.
Then on Monday afternoon, Meyers Taylor took silver in the inaugural monobob event to add a fourth Olympic medal to her career haul – equalling the speed skater Shani Davis as the most decorated Black athlete in Winter Games history – with a warm chance for a record-breaking fifth when the two-woman bobsleigh heats conclude on Saturday night.
Black History Month in the US has always coincided with the Winter Olympics on the calendar, but it’s fair to say that any overlap between the two have almost entirely ended there. The Games have been an overwhelmingly lilywhite affair favoring richer, colder nations despite mixed efforts by the International Olympic Committee to increase diversity through quota systems without compromising elite competitive standards.
But the 29-year-old Jackson, a former inline skater with an engineering degree from the University of Florida who made the US team for the 2018 Olympics after only four months on the ice, believes there is no reason that more young athletes of color can’t thrive in winter sports if given the opportunities. She hopes that her headline-grabbing success on the global stage can help get that message across.
“I hope I can be an example,” Jackson said. “I would love to see more people of color in all the winter sports. It helps to have some visibility out there, to be able to see other people like you doing something maybe you’d never thought about doing before.”
America’s first sprint queen since Bonnie Blair is one of three US long‑track medallists in Beijing – along with Brittany Bowe, who earned bronze in the women’s 1,000m, and Joey Mantia, who took men’s team pursuit bronze – to hail from Ocala, the central Florida city more than an hour’s drive from the closest ice rink which has become an improbable speed skating hotbed. All three got their start there and trained under the same youth coach, Renee Hildebrand, who helped guide each to inline world championships before their transitions to the ice.
Jackson surprised everyone, starting with herself, by earning a place on the US team for Pyeongchang so quickly after trading her wheels for blades, finishing 24th out of 31 competitors in the 500m in her Olympic debut. She has since blossomed into the top‑ranked sprinter in the world with four wins in eight World Cup races this season, making good on her favorite status in Beijing with Team USA’s first individual speed skating medal of any color in 12 years and the first by an American woman since 2002. Among the earliest spoils of victory was a namecheck by the Oscar-winning actor Viola Davis.
Meyers Taylor, already the only woman to win three Olympic bobsleigh medals for the US before Monday’s fourth, began campaigning for the addition of a four-woman event to the Olympic programme eight years ago with Kaillie Humphries, the then Canadian star who has since changed affiliations to the US. Their goal was to offer women the same medal opportunities as men, leading the pair to drive four-man sleds against men’s teams to make their point.
But international officials ultimately approved the addition of women’s monobob instead – where only the driver is in the sled – citing the lack of depth in female bobsleigh programmes globally and framing it as a better choice for inclusion. While it might not have been the outcome Meyers Taylor and Humphries set out to achieve in a gender-equity sense, the potential to add geographic diversity is welcome consolation.
Jackson and Meyers Taylor remain outliers at the Winter Games both on the field of play and – it must be said – in the press room. But a glance at Team USA’s roster shows encouraging if incremental signs of progress that can broaden the popularity of winter sports and potentially the pool of talent down the road.
Kelly Curtis, a decorated heptathlete at Division III’s Springfield College who caught the Olympic bug on a family trip to Atlanta after the city hosted the 1996 Games, became the first Black skeleton athlete to compete for the United States, joining Great Britain’s Brogan Crowley and Italy’s Valentina Margaglio as the only women of color in the field.
“It’s pretty important. It’s part of my identity, but it’s not the only thing that I lean on,” Curtis said. “I would like to be known as one of the best sliders. It’s nice with a cherry on top to be known as the first Black Olympian for USA Skeleton, but I would also like to be one of the best. So that’s really what I’m trying to progress toward every time I go out there and slide.”
Abby Roque, a forward on the United States’ silver medal-winning women’s ice hockey team, made history as the first Indigenous woman to play for the vaunted national side. The 24-year-old grew up in the Michigan town of Sault Ste Marie on the US-Canada border and is a member of the Wahnapitae First Nations tribe on her father’s side. She was joined on the ice in Thursday’s gold medal game by Canada’s Jocelyne Larocque and Jamie Lee Rattray, who both hail from the Métis Nation.
“It’s super exciting,” Roque said. “It’s something that I definitely take pride in and that I think is a great honour, but it’s also something that I hope we continue to grow.
“I hope there are more indigenous kids playing in the US, more kids who will make the Olympic roster some day. I wanted to be the first because I wanted to be on this roster, but I wish I wasn’t the first, I wish there were indigenous players on this roster before me.”
For Jackson, winning a historic gold is only the start. She’s been partnering with Edge Sports, a Washington state nonprofit that works to bring more diversity to snow sports and promote the normalization of Black and brown bodies on ice rinks and ski slopes around the country, about establishing a chapter in Utah where she lives today. Her goals include eliminating barriers to entry by providing scholarships for winter sports to people of color.
“Hopefully it has an effect,” Jackson said after Sunday’s rousing win, “and we can see more minorities, especially in the USA, getting out and trying some of these winter sports. And I just always hope to be a good example, especially with helping kids see they don’t have to just choose one between schools and sport.”
• This article was amended on 21 February 2022 because Sault Ste Marie is a town in Michigan, not Minnesota as an earlier version said.