With each step, DeAira Jackson separates from the pack. The 17-year-old, tall and thin, grits her teeth through her braces. Jackson’s legs ache as she runs the 25-meter shuttle. Her lungs burn in the thin Colorado Springs, Colo., air. In the final moment of the 30-second test, Jackson lunges across the final line, diving to the ground. Her chest and stomach convulse in a labored breath.
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Standing on wobbly legs with hands on knees, Jackson sputters, “Did I make it?” Not only did the teenager conquer the ruthless test six sets of 30-second shuttle sprints alternated with 30 seconds of rest before a three-minute rest then another six sets Jackson was the only one among 50 prospects to meet the prescribed benchmark.
That’s why she is the “Next Olympic Hopeful.”
After being named last summer as one of six winners of Season 3 of “Next Olympic Hopeful,” a TV show that identifies athletic talent in the United States, Jackson started training to become an Olympic rugby sevens player, a version of the sport that employs seven players per side rather than the traditional 15. She has barely started her college soccer career at Cal State Fullerton, but the goalkeeper is already moving into a simultaneous second act.
“I was thinking about after college, I could just hang the cleats up and be done, but rugby came along,” said Jackson, who enrolled at Fullerton early for spring quarter and will begin her freshman soccer season in the fall. “That’s what I want to do. That’s my next step.”
Giving talented athletes a second option is the purpose of “Next Olympic Hopeful,” said Scott Riewald, senior director of high-performance projects for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Production for the show’s fourth season was scheduled to begin in April but has been postponed indefinitely because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Last year, Jackson saw a sponsored ad for a Team USA scouting camp on Instagram. Season 3 found representatives in six sports: weightlifting, bobsled, rugby sevens, skeleton, rowing, and cycling. More than 4,800 people applied. Only 50 made the final cut for the four-day tryout at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training center in Colorado Springs last July.
Finalists went through a gantlet of tests: vertical jump, squats, and pull-ups to measure overall athleticism, then sports-specific tests to see how they stacked up to athletes in each of the six disciplines. Although she had never touched a rugby ball until the training camp, the 6-foot Jackson was an ideal candidate for the sport.
A former hurdler at Rancho Cucamonga High, she delivered speed and power. Her long history in a soccer goal also gave Jackson superior hand-eye coordination and the ability to kick a ball. Jackson acknowledges she still has much to learn about the sport; she only recently learned there are set pieces in rugby, as there are in soccer, after stoppages of play. But she knows enough about rugby to know it’s for her.
“Once you play it, it’s a world within itself, Jackson said. Nothing can compare to it. … It’s just nonstop fun for me.”
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