Erin Jackson still doesn’t know how it happened. One minute she was flying across the ice in the race that would determine whether she’d make the U.S. Olympic team in long-track speedskating and the next, she stumbled.

She momentarily flailed but stayed in the race, explaining that top women competing in the 500-meter long-track speedskating event complete the race in about 37 seconds.

“Because this race is so short, it’s very, very unforgiving. If you make a mistake, there’s just simply no time to make up for that. The competition is so strong that oftentimes the margin of victory is a tenth of a second or sometimes even hundreds of a second. You need to be just about perfect to win. But unfortunately, on this day, I wasn’t,” Jackson told members of Salt Lake Community College’s class of 2024 on Friday.

As she crossed the finish line, she looked up at the scoreboard for her name. The top two women would earn spots on Team USA. Jackson finished third, which meant her Olympic dream was over.

And it would have been if not for the profound generosity and sportsmanship of teammate, friend and mentor Brittany Bowe. Bowe, who had finished first in the trial and qualified in other events, gave up her spot in the 500-meter race so Jackson could compete.

A few weeks later, Jackson was on the starting line at the Olympic Games, skating in front of hundreds of people in the stands and millions watching on television around the world.

“On that day, there would be no stumbles. My stumble at the Olympic trials forced me to refocus like never before and I’m on that day in Beijing I had the race of my life. I had the race I’ve been dreaming for for years and years. And when it was all over, they gave me this,” she said, unzipping her academic robe to reveal her gold medal.

“Now for those of you who believe in karma, you’ll be happy to know that Brittany went on to qualify for the Olympic team in multiple other distances and she even went on to win a medal of her own,” said Jackson, the keynote speaker for the college’s commencement ceremony at the Maverik Center.

Jackson said when she slipped at the Olympic trials, she wasn’t distraught and she didn’t cry. It was a gut punch, no question, but losing her mother when she was a teenager had taught her what really mattered in life, people.

Olympic gold medalist and SLCC alumna Erin Jackson speaks during the Salt Lake Community College commencement ceremony at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Friday, May 3, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

“When you lose a parent and you’re young, you grow up fast, faster than you want. You quickly learn the difference between a few things in life that really mattered, like people, and the many things in life that really don’t, like just about everything else. You learn perspective in a painful yet profound way,” she said.

That lesson served her well many times in her life and enabled her to smile and congratulate her competitors at the Olympic trials “because well, no one had died. Nothing of true significance had really happened other than the girl from Florida who wanted to go really fast on that day could only manage to go pretty fast,” she said.

Jackson, who holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida, also earned an associate degree in computer science from SLCC in 2020, and continues to study at the college toward other degrees.

Her associate degree is among more than 36,000 degrees and certificates SLCC President Deneece Huftalin said she has celebrated during her decade as the community college’s leader.

Huftalin said each fall of her term, she selected a quote that she hopes captures “the collective tone, psyche or the need of our community for that particular year.”

This year she selected a quote from the naturalist John Burroughs that says, “Leap and the net will appear.”

It’s a very simple thought but very difficult to enact, she said.

“Taking a leap demands courage and it demands vulnerability. It demands stamina and it invites, no, it insists, that you let go of control, at least at some level,” she said.

The quote suggests if one leaps into the unknown, a figurative net will appear “that the universe or cosmic energy will provide in some way, shape or form. Serendipity will summon a chance encounter which will smooth your transition and options will open up. People will rise to your aid. Other people will share their network or wisdom or financial support,” she said.

SLCC is “chock full of those nets,” whether they come in the form of a compassionate faculty member who ensures a student a soft landing, someone who made a student aware of a scholarship, provided them food from the college pantry or invited them to an event that suddenly made them feel like they belonged, Huftalin said.

“I would encourage all of you to reach out to those staff or faculty or fellow students who you recognize as your net and thank them. They will be thrilled to know that they have a role in your success,” she said.

Huftalin said later this year, she will take a leap when she retires after 32 years at SLCC.

“I’m jumping into a quieter, slower paced, unknown future. My net has always been my family. My husband, Tim, and my boys, Max and Eli, who support me with their individual gifts of love, laughter, adventure and unconditional support. That net has been supported and fortified by the nets offered by the faculty, staff, trustees, students, community leaders, business leaders and friends who always had my back, that provided support and kept me aloft and focused on student success for so many years. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for being that net for me,” she said.

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This year, for the final time, Huftalin celebrated the 3,169 students who earned degrees and certificates from SLCC, which celebrated its 76th anniversary this year.

“It’s your turn to take the leap. You need to be courageous,” Huftalin told the graduates.

“You need to take the leap and here’s to the net that you will find.”

The class of 2024 include 34 people who earned SLCC degrees or certificates of completion at the Utah State Correctional Facility. This is the largest graduating class since the college’s prison education program started in 2017. They will receive their academic awards at a ceremony at the prison later this month.

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