Erica Jackson

Senior runner Erica Jackson won CAA Runner of the Week on Sept. 10.

The world is brimming with incredible people. Some are loud, bright and draw the attention of everyone around them like a firework. But others, like senior cross country runner Erica Jackson, blaze quietly.

Inside, Jackson has a competitive spirit that’s driven her to become one of the best runners on JMU’s cross country team. As someone who entered the sport her freshman year of high school — Jackson took up running to supplement her soccer career — she’s made prodigious progress from where she started.

“I used to be a huge soccer player,” Jackson said. “That’s kind of a lot of people’s story. Someone was like, ‘Hey, you should go try this running thing.’ I did, and it was helping with the soccer, so that’s why I stayed with it. Next thing I knew, I was trying out to run in college.”

Originally, Jackson wasn’t capable of running much more than 800 meters. Now, just seven years later, she’s winning CAA Runner of the Week for a first-place performance in the 5.2K at the JMU Invitational and is a member of both the 2016-17 CAA championship team and the 2017 ECAC championship team.

“[She’s a] tremendously hardworking, typical cross country person,” JMU head coach Dave Rinker said. “Task orientated, very devoted to both the academic and athletic side of what we do here. Great GPA. Studies all the time. When she’s not running, it feels like she’s in class, so she’s done a fantastic job. She’s come a long way in three and a half years.”

One of the reasons for Jackson’s progress is her self-motivation. She’s always kept her focus on achieving one goal before the next. As running long distances became easier, she didn’t stop, pat herself on the back and admire a job well done. She started running longer distances, tackling them with the same intensity as the shorter ones. The result is Jackson’s stunning improvement.

“She’s definitely one of the toughest people I know,” senior runner Erin Saunders said. “I always know that when we’re running a race and it’s coming down to the last mile or the last straight away, she’s going to beat the person in front of her.”

Jackson and Saunders have known each other for a long time. They have a history of competing in the same district in high school, and, after coming to JMU, the two became best friends and roommates.

“She’s just going to push herself to the absolute limit, so that’s always a nice teammate to have out there,” Saunders said. “Definitely in practice, she always gives 100 percent. She rarely has bad workout days because she always puts everything out there.”

As a result, Jackson acts as one of the team’s leaders. Unlike a general bellowing orders, Jackson’s style of leadership is calmer and subtler. Everyone has — grudgingly — heard the phrase, “do as I say, not as I do,” and Jackson’s type of leadership is the opposite of that.

“As a senior, they kind of look up and look to see what [I’m doing] and they’re going to mimic that,” Jackson said. “I just try to lead by example, I guess. I’m not super, super vocal. I just like to do as I say.”

Jackson cites her parents as one of her greatest influences, calling them her biggest heroes. Their unending support inspires Jackson and propels her forward. That support includes helping her achieve her dreams and yelling at her to “run faster” during races.

“Of course I’m trying to run faster, but they just want to help me in any way possible,” Jackson said. “They don’t always know what’s going on, but they try their best to say something.”

She may not be the most boisterous athlete, but Jackson has quietly molded herself into one of the best runners at JMU and in the CAA. She might not be a flashy firework, but her spirit blazes just as bright.

Contact Michael Turner at turnermb@dukes.jmu.edu. For more cross country coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

I hope to enlighten readers to the sweet science of combat sports and show that it’s not just brutes in a ring or cage but master technicians applying their craft.