Erin Jackson would have likely been a gold medal favorite in Beijing, but as things currently stand, she's out of the 2022 Olympics.
Jackson, the top-ranked speed skater in the world in the women's 500-meter event, missed out on Olympic qualification Friday after a stumble — not a fall, a stumble — caused her to fall behind two competitors at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
In an event with only two slots available to qualify for Beijing, Jackson finished third with a time of 38.249 seconds. Brittany Bowe, who already won the 1,000-meter event at the Trials, registered the top time with 37.811 seconds, while Kimi Goetz was just behind her at 37.859 seconds.
Jackson may not have fallen, but the stumble cost her a precious moment in an event that comes down to fractions of seconds.
After the race, Jackson was shown the replay of her stumble and said she lost her footing by hitting "a bad edge" in an otherwise routine outing.
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) January 8, 2022
The United States has not won an Olympic medal in the 500-meter event since Bonnie Blair's gold in 1994 at Lillehammer. Missing Jackson would almost certainly hurt the team's chances at breaking that drought.
Jackson is currently ranked No. 1 in the world by the International Skating Union after winning four of eight World Cup events this season, with a second- and third-place finish on her resume as well. In 2018, she made the U.S. Olympic team only four months after switching over from inline skating.
Erin Jackson's biggest mistake was not falling down
There was some hope Jackson could get a re-skate and save her Olympic chances, but she somehow didn't stumble enough to get that opportunity.
Under U.S. Speed Skating's rules, a skater may receive a re-skate in the event of an unintentional fall, but not a stumble. So when Jackson realized she was losing her balance, it was actually in her best interest to keep losing that balance until she was sitting on the ice.
Jackson was well aware of that rule after the race, but said it would be a bad thing to encourage:
"I had thought about this before the race, the rules are you have to fall to get a re-skate. My thoughts were in a 500, even a stumble is enough to take out of it, because the 500 is determined by hundredths of a second. So I thought making it so you have to fall to get a re-skate, it's kind of encouraging people to take the sit, if they have a stumble like mine.
"So of course it flashed in my head, 'Maybe I should have sat down,' but I think it's just a bad thing to encourage that. So I think when it comes to a race like the 500, there should be special considerations because it comes down to such a tight time difference."
Now, thanks to a lack of discretionary spots and using only one time to determine Team USA's speed-skating roster, the only way for Jackson to make it to Beijing is for someone to pull out, which isn't an impossibility thanks to the threat of COVID-19 and the fact that the two skaters ahead of her have already qualified for the 1,000-meter event. Bowe even hinted there could be some hope for Jackson as well, telling reporters "I think we'd find a way to get her in the 500m."
There's also an unlikely, but not impossible, scenario in which the U.S. gets three spots in the 500-meter depending on how other countries accept or decline quota spots, per NBC.
Whether or not Jackson get a spot, it's a surreal situation. All she can do is wait:
"I feel like I messed up. It's definitely on me, but it would be awesome to get that re-skate especially being not just No. 1 ranked in the U.S., but No. 1 ranked in the world. It would be kinda strange to not go. All I can do is wait and see if someone declines their spot and then I could go. We'll see."