CYPRESS MOUNTAIN, British Columbia -- Furlongs ahead of the woman behind her, Lindsey Jacobellis took flight in the flat light of late afternoon, the finish line in sight. Moments later, she found herself lying the snow, wondering what had gone wrong.
Unlike her howler from four years ago, the pratfall seen 'round the world, the foul-up that became a cautionary tale -- an advertisement for the pitfalls of premature celebration -- Jacobellis wasn't celebrating anything this time. She wasn't leading a race and hadn't performed an extraneous method grab when she biffed at the end of a training run late last Sunday afternoon.
"OOOoooh! I hate that," winced Canadian rider Drew Neilson as Jacobellis caught a toe-side edge in the slush at the bottom of the course, face-planting hard, her board in the air behind her in a species of wipeout known as a Scorpion. "I think that's Lindsey."
Unlike her fall at Torino, Jacobellis, who is now 24, stayed down for a while, and could be seen sobbing as teammates came to her aid. Jacobellis, who has put up a wall between herself and reporters since the team's introductory press conference way back on February 10, wasn't talking last Sunday either, although her eyes were red-rimmed as she went by.
"Happy Valentines Day!" I told her. She smiled, but didn't stop. Lindsey Sine, U.S. Snowboarding's p.r. coordinator, told me Jacobellis was more frustrated than hurt. Training had been cancelled the day before, and Sunday was the women's final chance to familiarize themselves with a course which, despite the Herculean efforts of volunteers and VANOC officials, was above all else, inconsistent: firm here, rutted there, occluded with slush elsewhere.
"There's definitely a lot more pressure on Lindsey than there is on the rest of us," allowed 17-year-old Faye Gulini. "It takes pressure off us, which is good in a way, but it sucks for her."
Lindsey Jacobellis is a good person who turns into a tiger shark when the gate drops. She's won a lot of races since handing the gold medal to Swiss rider Tanja Frieden in Bardonecchia four years ago -- including a dominant victory in the test event on this course a year ago. She was more relaxed at that time, and we went out for coffee, and she let her guard down. She spoke with deep affection for her mother, whose birthday, incidentally, is today. Lindsey is an unabashed dog person, active in supporting the ASPCA. She smiled brightest talking about Gidget, her "scrappy" Yorkshire terrier.
She's 24 now, but in a way she's still just a sweet kid. Even when she removes the spinal protector and shoulder pads rocked by all boardercrossers, there's still something guarded about her. That's been the case since Torino, where she seemed stunned by the blowback following her method gaffe, er, grab.
The community of shredders closed ranks around her. Todd Richards, a pioneering U.S. 'boarder and ex-Olympian covering the sport for NBC then and now, did his best to explain to a mainstream audience that such flourishes were ingrained in the carefree ethos of the sport, gently reminding viewers that what Jacobellis did fell short of crime against humanity, despite the hit taken by Team USA's gold medal count, and pressure from some of his network colleagues to "rip her."
Jacobellis didn't cop to the mistake right away, which didn't help. She talked about how she grabbed to stabilize herself in the air, but no one was really buying it. But the reaction was harsh -- particularly so, considering that Jacobellis was 20 at the time -- and her spontaneous decision to pull down a few style points that afternoon in Bardonecchia has followed her as resolutely as Inspector Javert followed Jean Valjean in Les Miserable.
Like Seth Wescott, who won gold in this event Monday, Jacobellis appears to be peaking at the optimal time, having won at the Winter X Games two weeks ago. It remains to be seen whether she can defeat both a strong field, highlighted by Canadian riders Maelle Ricker (who also left the course in tears after a fall in training on Sunday), and erstwhile firefighter Dominique Maltais -- and this tortured course. If you watched the men's race yesterday, you saw gremlins randomly reaching up and snatching guys out of the competition. Riders who strayed from the center of the run ended up in ruts that swallowed them whole, ending their Olympics.
Whoever wins today is going to have to be very good, and very lucky.
Not long before Jacobellis biffed last Sunday, the irrepressible Australian rider Steph Hickey came off the course grinning from ear to ear. She'd just overshot the final kicker, flown 100 feet and nearly ended up in the parking lot. But she hung on to the landing, and now could not stop laughing. "Holy s---!" she shouted. "That was SO MUCH FUN!'
Regardless of where Jacobellis finishes today, I just hope she has some fun out there. It would be nice to see her smile.
The (slightly sentimental) pick: