Everybody loves a good story, and it’s hard to think of a better one than the one about Ocala’s three Olympians that was told and retold during the recent Winter Games.
It started as a story of selflessness and sportsmanship and ended with the trio of native Ocalans — Brittany Bowe, Erin Jackson and Joey Mantia — coming home with Olympic medals hanging around their necks. That these children of Florida, who grew up in a town with no ice skating rink and where the temperature was 77 the day the Olympics started, all won their medals speedskating on ice just made the story better.
Yet, this Olympic tale was more than a feel-good story. It was a public relations bonanza for Ocala. Yes, we’re one of the 10 fastest growing places in the country. Sure, we’re one of America’s best places to retire or to start a business. And, of course, we’re the Horse Capital of the World.
But the ride Bowe, Jackson and Mantia took us on since the beginning of the year has been uplifting and pride-stirring on another level. They are not just Olympians. They are the son and daughters of Ocala who made us proud as athletes and, more importantly, as people. Oh, did they make us proud.
A public relations magician could not have concocted a better storyline – and who would believe it if they had. And they darn sure could not have gotten the sort of attention for Ocala that our Olympians did.
For those who have been on Mars the past couple of months, a quick recap. Former champion inline skaters here in Ocala, Bowe, Jackson and Mantia all went to the Olympics at the top of their game. But during the Olympic trials in early January, Jackson – the No. 1 ranked 500-meter skater in the world – slipped during her race and failed to make the U.S. team. Bowe, who had won the 500m trial, and also qualified in the 1000m and 1500m races, gave her 500m spot to Jackson. That unbelievably generous act captured the world’s attention and, ultimately, it’s heart.
“It’s hard to imagine someone would give up an Olympic spot for you,” Jackson would later tell Olympic.com.
That’s what everybody thought.
Pretty soon those chasing the Bowe-Jackson story realized they came from the same town — Ocala, Florida — as does Mantia. They all grew up together as competitive inline skaters, each with multiple world championships. It was our town, our athletes everybody was talking about. And it felt really, really good.
Before you could say speedskating, reporters from around the world were talking and writing about the Florida town that was producing America’s best speedskaters. Who’d have thunk it?
All the attention surprised the Olympians, especially Bowe’s gift to Jackson, who went on to win gold in the 500m.
“Initially I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, to be quite honest with you,” Bowe told Olympics.com. “In my heart and soul, it was just the right thing to do. And very quickly we both realized this was going to be a lot bigger of a deal than we both anticipated or thought of. ”
Bigger, indeed. Everywhere you looked during the Olympic Games people were talking about the kids from Ocala. And when all three medaled, it just brought renewed attention — and a retelling of the whole story — to what some are now calling “America’s hotbed of speedskating.”
Bowe has come to appreciate how much it meant to a nation weary of divisiveness and disease.
“The amount of support and love we have received over the past month has just been incredible,” she told Olympics.com last month. “In times when there is so much division, it’s been great to bring so many people together. This moment is awesome.”
Awesome, and then some. For a memorable two months, Ocala was the talk of the Olympics because three of our own stepped onto the world stage showing not only that they are world-class athletes, but world-class people.
Yeah, everyone loves a good story, especially when it’s about your own. Be proud Ocala that Bowe, Jackson and Mantia delivered a story for the ages. It’s one that won’t be forgotten.