When you think Winter Olympics, you don’t usually think Florida. Well, think again. Five Floridians are competing in the 2018 Games, which open Thursday night in PyeongChang, South Korea. Four are speedskaters, and one is a hockey player. Here are their stories:
▪ Erin Jackson, 25,
The fact that she is the first black woman to ever make the U.S. long track speedskating team is impressive enough. But what makes Jackson’s story even more remarkable is that she took up the sport just four months before qualifying for the Olympics. That’s right. The first time Jackson raced on the ice was four months before the January Olympic trials.
In fact, the first time she ever set foot on the ice was a year ago in Salt Lake City; and, like all beginners, she hung on to the railing for dear life.
Jackson, who graduated cum laude from the University of Florida in 2015 with a degree in Materials Engineering, did have experience skating, but not on ice. She had been a roller skater from the time she was 10 years old, when she was introduced to the sport at a birthday party. She started with artistic roller skating — figure skating on wheels — and then found her true love with competitive inline racing.
By the time she was in high school, she had already won a world championship gold medal. During the next seven years, she was an 11-time inline world medalist and 47-time U.S. champion. She also played roller derby for the Ocala Cannibals and the Jacksonville Roller Girls.
Inline skating is not an Olympic sport, so Jackson figured the only way she would ever get to compete in an Olympics was to make the switch to ice, which many inline skaters have done in the past. She went to Salt Lake City in February 2017, took her first ice skating lesson and trained there for about a month.
She never imagined at the time that she would be ready to make the 2018 Olympic team. She had her mind set on 2022, and figured she would use the 2018 Olympic trials as a way to gauge where she was in her development. But with the help of coaches Renee Hildebrand and Ryan Shimabukuro, she progressed much faster than expected. She clocked a time of 39.04 seconds in the 500-meter sprint at trials, having never broken the 40-second barrier until that week.
When she shocked the speedskating world by making the U.S. team at trials, she said incredulously: “I really wasn’t expecting any of this, just coming in as a newbie, just trying to do the best I can.”
She will be competing in the 500-meter sprint.
▪ Brittany Bowe, 29, Ocala, Speedskating
Another Florida speedskater with an interesting back story is Bowe, a former basketball star at Florida Atlantic University who will be competing in her second Winter Olympics.
Bowe has always loved sports. She did basketball dribbling exhibitions at halftime of local games when she was 3 years old. By age 13, she was playing basketball, competing in inline roller skating races and playing on a U13 boys’ soccer team.
She played basketball at Trinity Catholic High School, and earned a scholarship to FAU, where she wound up as the starting point guard. She played there from 2006-2010 and is No. 8 on the Owls’ all-time scoring list, No. 4 in assists and No. 9 in steals.
In February 2010 Bowe watched the Vancouver Olympics and saw that some of her former inline roller skating competitors had switched to speedskating on ice. She was intrigued, and decided to follow in the skate steps of KC Boutiette, Miami’s Jennifer Rodriguez and Derek Parra.
She moved to Salt Lake City, and joined Parra’s Wheels to Ice training program. Her big breakthrough came at a World Cup in Germany in 2013, when she won the 1,000.
Chancellor Dugan, Bowe’s former basketball coach at FAU, said of Bowe during the 2014 Olympics: “Three and a half years ago, she was learning how to skate and now she has the world record. That is what separates the regular athlete from the Olympic athlete. She has amazing speed, but more important she has that singular focus, that `It’ factor you just can’t teach.’’
Bowe will compete in the 500, 1,000 and 15,000.
▪ Joey Mantia, 32,
Yet another Olympic speedskater from the Ocala Speed club is Mantia, who will compete in the 1,000, 1,500, mass start and team pursuit. He is the reigning world champion in the mass start, an event making its Olympic debut in PyeongChang.
He is a 28-time world champion and world-record holder. Like Bowe and Jackson, Mantia started skating on roller blades. He made the switch to ice in 2010 and moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and then moved to Salt Lake City. He competed in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
In addition to speedskating, Mantia is owner of Coffee Lab, a coffee shop on the University of Utah campus. He also plays the piano.
▪ Brandon Maxwell, 26, Winter Park, Hockey
Although he is from a hometown with a wintry name — Winter Park — there aren’t many professional hockey goalkeepers from that part of the country. Maxwell grew up a huge hockey fan, and by age 18, was a member of the U.S. U18 World Championship bronze medal winning team.
Maxwell was drafted in the sixth round of the 2009 NHL Draft by the Colorado Avalanche, but went unsigned and never played in the league. He plays for BK Mlada Boleslav of the Czech ExtraLiga. One reason he was chosen for the 2018 Olympic team is that he is accustomed to the international-sized rinks, which are wider than NHL rinks.
▪ Mia Mangenello, 28, Crestview, Speedskating
She was a professional racing cyclist who decided to switch to speedskating. She was a cyclist from 2010 to 2016 and training as a speedskater at the same time. She came close to qualifying for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and finally reached her goal for the 2018 Games. She is racing in the 1,500, mass start and team pursuit.
Mangenello’s family owned an Italian restaurant — Dominic’s Pizzeria — in Valparaiso, 20 minutes outside Crestview. She grew up working at the restaurant, and in her free time liked to roller skate and visit Fort Walton Beach.