When you think of the Sooners who could bring a crowd to their feet on the final event of the night, you think of Haley Scaman, Brenna Dowell, Chayse Capps, and Maggie Nichols. But no one could quite put an exclamation point at the end of a meet like AJ Jackson. A crowd favorite thanks to her powerful tumbling, unique choreography and signature chalk blow, Jackson left her mark on OU and a hole in the floor lineup that will be hard to replace.
Jackson, a native of Belton, Mo., began gymnastics at the age of six after trying, and hating, t-ball and soccer. A soccer teammate taught her how to do cartwheels on the sideline and the rest was history. Though no one in her family had ever done gymnastics, Jackson’s mom enrolled her in the sport. From the very beginning, she was hooked.
“I think it was so different because not a lot of people did it,” she said. “I was always jumping around anyway and doing random stuff like flipping over my bed and all that. I was able to do that in a controlled atmosphere instead of going in and hurting myself. With other sports, you hit a ball, that’s all you do. You might be good at it, you might be bad at it, but that depends if you’re good at it or not. With gymnastics, there’s such a broad spectrum. You might be good at this thing, but you might not be good at this thing. You can still be amazing at what you do.”
As she moved up the levels of competitive gymnastics, Jackson was never at the top of the podium. With a handful of kids always in front of her, she never really let it bother her. Once a level 10, the top level before becoming elite, she began to excel. She placed sixth in the all-around at the Nastia Liukin Cup behind five gymnasts who had been training at the elite level. Then, there were back-to-back-to-back Junior Olympic National Championships on vault and a third-place finish in the all-around.
Jackson joined the Sooners for the 2015 season and was part of two National Championship teams.
The success garnered during her freshman and sophomore years of high school led to OU head coach K.J. Kindler extending an offer to Jackson to join the Sooners. It was the only offer Jackson would receive and the only offer she wanted.
“I ended up placing third at nationals in the all-around, first on vault and third on bars and floor,” Jackson recalled. “After that nationals, I took a trip to Oklahoma and KJ was like ‘hey! You want to come here for school?’ and I was like ‘yeah, let’s do it.’ I didn’t have another offer from another school, so this was where I wanted to go immediately.”
Jackson’s introduction to OU occurred during her freshman year of high school. A club teammate wanted to go to a gymnastics camp at a college and the pair chose OU. Jackson didn’t know much about the Sooners at the time as she hadn’t yet been looking at colleges. After a pair of unofficial visits as a sophomore, Jackson knew that there was nowhere else that she would thrive and continue to become a better gymnast.
As a freshman, Jackson made her presence known as an event specialist on floor and vault. She was the Big 12 Vault Champion and NCAA Norman Regional Vault Champion. Jackson finished as an All-American on vault and in sixth place at the NCAA Event Finals. She was also named the Big 12 Event Specialist of the Year, the first and only freshman to ever receive the award.
“Honestly, it was surprising,” Jackson said. “I had never won the event specialist weekly award or anything. I thought they always gave it to somebody that wasn’t a freshman, like, they won a freshman award and couldn’t win anything else and so I was like ‘oh, okay, I’m good enough to get this award as a freshman’. That’s not common.”
"I know a lot of people didn’t always see the potential I had, and I didn’t even see it in myself. Then KJ gave me the chance to show everybody."
- AJ Jackson
Jackson’s career took off from there as she used the success of her freshman year to motivate her to be even better than she had been. As a sophomore, she repeated as the Big 12 Vault Champion, secured a pair of All-America honors and finished third on floor nationally. At the end of her junior year, she was once again tabbed the Big 12 Event Specialist of the Year, earned two All-America honors and picked up her third Big 12 individual championship with a first-place finish on floor.
Though her senior year wasn’t what she hoped it would be, walking off the floor for the last time at Lloyd Noble Center is a moment Jackson will always cherish. Having the chance to anchor one last time in front of the Sooner faithful was a reminder of the coaches who took a chance on her years before.
“I would thank OU for giving me the chance, because there were not a lot of people that gave me a chance,” she said. “I know a lot of people didn’t always see the potential I had, and I didn’t even see it in myself. Then KJ gave me the chance to show everybody. KJ, Tom, and Lou all gave me the chance to show what I’m capable of. I couldn’t thank them enough.”
Jackson was a six-time All-American and a two time Big 12 vault champion.
Jackson is still at OU finishing her degree and volunteering at all OU home meets. When she walks into the arena for a meet, she’s met with a larger-than-life photo of herself on the banner that spans the length of the venue. Her legacy as a “nobody” turned into a Sooner fan favorite forever enshrined her in OU history.
“I hope that I could show people that you don’t have to a be a big name coming in to excel in college,” she said. “Coming in, not necessarily as a no name, but somebody who was good in club but not someone everyone knew about, it’s nice to know that you can become someone in college. And, I want people to know that just because you might not be a Simone Biles or anybody who was great, doesn’t mean you can’t be great.”
“I was always this really shy person - I still am really shy,” Jackson said. “I want people to know that you can show more through your gymnastics, through your sport and your ability than you might be able to on the outside. I want people to know that you’re also more than an athlete. I want people to look up to me for being the person who is nice to the fans, who can go up to the fans and appreciate them more because without them you wouldn’t be where you are.”