Victoria Jackson, a former elite professional runner, is a sports historian and Clinical Assistant Professor of History in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. Before joining a Zócalo/ASU Foundation streamed event titled “Can We Build a Better Summer Olympics?” she called into the virtual green room to talk about respecting opponents, traveling vicariously through books, and hanging out with track-and-field legends Wyomia Tyus and John Carlos.
When are you at your most creative?
Oh, while I’m running. That was easy. You know how a repetitive movement or path lets your mind kind of bifurcate? So you’re focused on stepping on the trails and not falling, but then this other part of your brain can wander. The hardest part is when you get back, and you have to scramble and write down everything you were thinking. And sometimes I’ll forget.
What’s the best gift you’ve ever gotten?
My son drew a self-portrait and he looks like a peanut. It’s probably the cutest thing he’s ever produced. Because he does kind of look like a peanut, so it’s perfect. He’s 5 now. It’s in his room. He wanted it by him. That’s what they do; they give you things and then they take it back.
What’s your favorite book?
I don’t have one favorite book. My favorite book that I’ve read recently is Kate Harris’s book Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. And I’m enjoying it very much. It’s like a very adventurous person writing about a very long traveled adventure. And since we can’t really travel, I’m traveling vicariously through it.
What do you do to decompress?
If I just need to just reset myself, I’ll do like 20 to 30 minutes of pushups and core. And I started doing this in November of 2016. I’ve been doing it ever since. When I just feel overwhelmed, that’s when I do to reset.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Best advice I’ve ever received? A done dissertation is a great dissertation.
I’m sure a lot of academia can relate to that. Speaking of academia, if you weren’t sports historian, what would you be?
Well, I guess I can’t really be a camp counselor and lifeguard anymore. You kind of age out of that. I think coaching. I had been a volunteer coach in the Arizona State track office for about a year and a half. But I no longer coach.
What’s the most memorable sporting event you attended live?
The last time I was in Ann Arbor in the Big House for a Michigan football game. And I went to them all of the time with my dad, who had season tickets. I grew up in the Big House thinking that I would be playing football at the University of Michigan. But I went back for a game when I was in my 20s, and it was an historic year for Michigan in that they were the first team to be ranked in the top five and lose the first two games of the season.
The first game they lost was to Appalachian State, which Michigan football was not expecting to lose to Appalachian State. And then the second game they lost was to Oregon, and this was before Oregon was good at football.
But what drove me crazy was that in the stands, all the Michigan fans sitting around me were mispronouncing Appalachian State, and they were mispronouncing Oregon. And I do remember kind of getting snippy and saying to somebody sitting next to me, “You do need to take the opponent seriously, and one way to respect them and take them seriously is to pronounce their names correctly.”
What sports figure, living or dead, would you most like to meet?
Well, I have had the privilege to spend time with Wyomia Tyus and John Carlos, who both competed in the 1968 Olympics. John Carlos—I think most people have familiarity with that name—he just celebrated a birthday, so happy birthday to him. But Wyomia was the first person to successfully defend gold in the 100-meters in the Olympics. Nobody cared because she was a black woman and from the Jim Crow South. And so it was really good to spend time with Wyomia recreating that race. We were in Mexico City for the anniversary, the 50th anniversary, with the Global Sport Institute at ASU. And that just rocked.
The person I would love to meet is Cathy Freeman who’s an Aboriginal Australian. She won Olympic gold in the 400 when Australia was hosting the Sydney Olympics. And I think her performance was probably the hardest Olympic performance in Olympic history, because she was carrying the hopes of her entire nation on her shoulders in this really important moment when Australia was having a reckoning with its treatment of Aboriginal peoples and what amounted to cultural genocide and the Stolen Generations, the Aboriginal children who were taken out of their homes and placed in adoptive families.
And so she got to run her victory lap with both the Australian flag and the Aboriginal flag, which is not a thing you can do—that’s in violation of the Olympic Charter, typically. But in the Sydney Olympics, they were allowed to fly two flags.
What’s the last thing that inspired you?
The collection of black women runners who have shared their experiences of running while black since Ahmaud Arbery was killed has been incredibly powerful to watch.
As somebody who regularly thinks about and cares about what it means to be black in the United States in the 21st century, to see these women take on the burden of being graceful and then compassionate toward a very white running community who has a lot of questions for them and kind of do the labor for them. Alison Désir was the first to write a first-person piece about what it means to be black and running in the US. She’s inspired a kind of reckoning and moment of discussion, especially among white women runners.