Monday February 17th, 2014

Krasnaya Polyana, Russia -- To her many talents add this one: Eva Samkova, who won the Czech Republic's first gold medal of these Games, makes a mustache look good.

Samkova, a 20-year-old dynamo from Vrchlabi – "The Gate to The Giant Mountains," where she got her start in this sport – dominated the field of two dozen snowboard cross riders with help from her painted on, tri-color "lucky mustache." She's been racing with the 'stache for the last three years, and you can't blame her. In this cruel and chaotic sport, which shares NASCAR's "rubbin' is racin'" ethos, riders need all the luck they can get.

Usually. Samkova drastically improved her odds by taking the lead in each of her three races and holding it wire-to-wire. Only one 'boarder in this competition appeared to be in her class. But, in keeping with her Olympic tradition – stop me if you've heard this before -- Lindsey Jacobellis committed an unforced error.

For the second straight Games, Jacobellis failed expunge the memory of her gaffe in Turin eight years ago, when her decision to garnish her run with an extraneous grab left her tumbling off the top step of the podium.

Early on she looked brilliant, scorching this challenging and huge -- but not unreasonable -- course at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. She and Samkova were absorbing the bumps, taking the truer lines, embracing rather than resisting the speed this track forced on all the riders. From opposite sides of the bracket, they were ticketed to a showdown in the final. One of them never got there.

Having staked herself to a comfortable lead in her semifinal, she overshot the landing on a double-jump two thirds of the way down, lost her edge, fishtailed, then bounced on her backside as five riders hurtled past, grateful for her gift. Careening down the hill, Jacobellis nearly took out her old rival Dominique Maltais, her board appearing to come within inches of the Canadian's face. But Maltais, a firefighter, kept her cool, avoided the collision and ended up with a bronze medal.

"I thought I was gonna pull it off," recalled Jacobellis, of that squirrelly landing. "But as soon as I hit that snow" – her board dredged slush like a snowplow, serving as very effective brake – "there was no way to recover."

She was more matter-of-fact than devastated. Quite justifiably, Jacobellis feels no compulsion to apologize to anyone. With 26 World Cup wins and eight X Games gold medals, she's the most dominant rider in the brief history of her sport. It's her singular misfortune that her dominance goes on hiatus every four years.

"Of course it's unfortunate this didn't work out for me," she said, delivering yet another glum postmortem in another Olympic mix zone. "I've trained very hard for this moment, and it just doesn't come together, for who knows what reason."

Her teammate, Faye Gulini, had a pretty good idea. Let the record show, before we hear Gulini's theory, that this 20-year-old from Salt Lake City had pretty darn good day, riding with consistency and caginess to a fourth place finish, just out of the medals. Her take on the flameout of her better-known teammate:

"I think people don't understand how much pressure is put on her. And it takes the fun out of it for her, just for this event. She's a phenomenal snowboarder, but it's in her head. 

"I've never had that kind of pressure as an athlete, but I know that it just breaks her … and it makes it hard for her to do her [best]."

Gulini charitably concluded that Jacobellis "deserves more." Here she is mistaken. As the eminent American philosopher Bill Parcells has noted, "You are what your record says you are." Lindsey Jacobellis is an amazing player … in the regular season.

Nothing wrong with that. As she herself notes, "There's worse things in life than not winning. A lot worse."

She spoke a day after the Russian skier Maria Komissarova lost control going through a triple jump on the upper part of the course. Komissarova was transported a hospital in the valley, where she doctors spent 6 ½ hours operating on her dislocated spine.

The knowledge that Komissarova had suffered so grievous an injury on this some course made it particularly chilling when Helene Olafsen, the first snowboard cross rider to drop in on a solo run to seed the heats, lost control of her board navigating a triple jump high on the course. Olafsen ragdolled 50 yards down the mountain before coming to rest in a seated position, screaming, "I [hurt] my f_______ knee!"

Five riders later, Team USA's Jacqueline Hernandez landed a massive jump on her heelside edge, her momentum whipping her helmeted into the hardpacked snow, and knocking her out. She was okay, but her Olympics were over.

The uncomfortable truth about this event -- and ski-cross, which makes its debut next week on Thursday -- is that it makes one vaguely uncomfortable to watch. It's like bringing a picnic lunch to an intersection with a malfunctioning traffic light. Ski and snowboard cross are designed to yield a modicum of mayhem; Olympic officials just hope that no one is maimed along the way.

Gulini described the layout as "the toughest we've been on all season" – but fair. "It's built really well. If you give it speed, it's gonna run. But I think for a lot of girls it was mental."

 

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