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 labored breath.
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.
And, at 17, she was young.
“She has the physical ability and the physical profile to be competitive at the international level and that’s why we’re investing in her,” said Emilie Bydwell, the women’s high performance director for USA Rugby. “The grit and resilience side, she’s got that as well. It’s just going to be like, does she fall in love with rugby?”
For Jackson, who turned 18 in March and parlayed her victory at the “Next Olympic Hopeful” into two under-18 rugby training camps last year, it might have been love at first sight.
She is drawn to the sport’s creativity, she said. She loves the adrenaline rush of a good tackle. She relishes the way the game tests her physical limits. She imagines herself in the 2024 Olympics.
But knowing how much work lies ahead and how much of Jackson’s next four years will be occupied by school and soccer at Fullerton, Bydwell pumps the brakes for the Paris Games. She believes a 2028 Olympic debut is more likely with an opportunity to play again in 2032.
Jackson has yet to play her first competitive game for Fullerton, but she already is working on a plan to balance the passions. During fall and spring, it’s soccer, where she is “set up right now to have a fantastic career,” Fullerton coach Demian Brown said. During the summers and winters, she will transition to rugby during stints at the USA Rugby training center in Chula Vista.
Jackson participated in rugby training camps in September and November last year, learning the basics through drills designed to help athletes from other sports cross over into rugby. She caught on so quickly that she was named a starting wing in the under-18 high school All-American game in December against Canada.
It was her first ever competitive rugby game after just 12 days of practice.
“I didn’t want to mess up or falter, but I was still like, ‘Let me go have fun,’ and that’s what I did,” Jackson said.
Jackson was expected to participate in another rugby tournament in May, but it was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. The opportunity would have been a good benchmark for Jackson, Bydwell said before the virus’ outbreak. The tournament would have been a sevens-specific event, giving participants experience in the fast-paced Olympic version of the sport. The December game was the traditional 15-player form.
The pandemic also cost Jackson an opportunity to watch the different styles and strategies of play during the 2020 Olympics, which have now been postponed until 2021. It would have been a way to “extend my knowledge,” she said.
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 actually play it, it’s a world within itself,” Jackson said. “Nothing can compare to it. … It’s just nonstop fun for me.”