As Brittany Bowe watched her good friend and training-mate Erin Jackson slip on a straightaway at January’s U.S. Olympic trials for speed skating, she did all that she could to encourage Jackson to fight to the end.
“I just remember [yelling] 'Get it back, skate. Just skate,’ because it's really easy to start to panic after something like that happens and it was still a pretty impressive time for such a bad slip,” recalled Bowe in an exclusive interview alongside Jackson with Olympics.com earlier this month.
But the slip – a momentary blip to the untrained eye – was a major and costly error.
“I was on the same straightaway, which was the back stretch when she had that misstep. It was a gigantic slip. There was nothing small about it to a skater’s eye,” explained Bowe.
As the top-ranked 500m skater in the world, Jackson had entered the trials as the heavy favourite to win the event and punch a ticket to the Beijing Games. Her error in the race and subsequent third-place finish was shocking to everyone – Jackson and Bowe included.
“I was expecting to win Olympic Trials,” said Jackson. “So then to have that misstep was kind of devastating, you know, because I was looking forward to having a good race.”
With Jackson’s surprising slip, Bowe ended up the winner of the 500m but it didn’t go right with her.
“Although I won that race, I didn't feel victorious at all,” said Bowe. “My heart and mind just started racing as to like, ‘How are we going to get Erin onto this team?’ So, it was a very deflated atmosphere in the rink.”
The ultimate gesture
Bowe knew she had to do whatever she could, including forgoing a place in the 500m at the Olympics, to get her friend to Beijing. It didn’t take long for the long-time friends to connect and for Bowe to do her best at easing Jackson’s racing mind.
“We connected that evening when the event concluded. We just met up for a brief moment, and I just needed to tell Erin that at the end of the day, if it comes down to it, she can have my spot,” said Bowe. “I thought she earned it and she deserved it over her performance from the first four World Cups. And, you know, just hoping to give her a little bit of comfort and peace of mind to get a couple minutes of sleep that night, knowing that if I had anything to do it, she'd be going to Beijing.”
Jackson was moved by the gesture, but still didn’t get much sleep that evening. She says she awoke at 3 am with her mind racing.
“It was definitely a big relief, you know, a big emotional relief at that point,” explained Jackson. “I didn't completely relax because, you know, things are still up in the air until it's official, but it's definitely a big relief.”
Stronger together - personified
Both Bowe and Jackson were surprised by the interest in their story. News of Bowe giving up her spot for Jackson was everywhere, and they did interviews for days following the Olympic trials.
“I didn't think it was that big of a deal, to be quite honest with you,” Bowe said, “Like in my heart and mind, it was just the right thing to do. And very quickly, probably Sunday afternoon, I think we both realized this was going to be a lot bigger of a deal than we both anticipated or thought.”
They are hopeful their story will shine a brighter light on the sport which they admit doesn’t get the attention they wish it did in the United States.
It is also a story of how two teammates competing alone on the ice are – as the updated Olympic motto reads – stronger together.
“I've known that Britt was an amazing person for years. You know, like two thirds of my life,” Jackson said. “It’s hard to imagine if someone would give up an Olympic spot for you. So just seeing that and just really kind of being reaffirmed in my thoughts of her for all these years that like the bond is there and it's awesome.”
“For us, I mean, it's obvious we're out there competing alone, and we are competing in an individual sport. But I think this, you know, like this result makes it apparent that it's so much bigger than just one person, and I feel grateful that I'm at the point in my career that I am to have the opportunity to give that to somebody else,” said Bowe, who is heading to her third Olympic Games. “And it would be a sin to not have Erin there in Beijing. And, you know, just it's bigger than me. It's for Team USA, it's for Erin.”