KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- The area where Olympic athletes meet the media after events is called the mixed zone, but zones mix better for some athletes than others. Sunday afternoon, following the women's snowboard cross, Lindsey Jacobellis knew when she walked in that she was meat for the wolves.
She had fallen on her semifinal run, keeping her out of the finals, off the podium and her image as an Olympic choker intact. She is the best in the world at her sport, but now has one medal -- a silver -- in three Olympics.
“There’s worse things in life than not winning,” Jacobellis said, and this is precisely the kind of thing we want to hear from our children but not from our Olympians.
Still, she is right. And if you looked closely this weekend, you saw three Americans who have grown up, every four years, into the kind of Olympians that should make their country proud even when they don’t win.
At the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, three Americans stood out for their wrong attitudes: Bode Miller for his indifference, Shani Davis for his insolence and Jacobellis for her ignorance.
Miller seemingly flew all the way to Italy to drink beer. He was supposed to be the Michael Phelps of those Olympics, and instead he turned into the Michael Olowokandi. He was disqualified from one race, didn’t finish two others and went home without a medal.
Davis made it pretty clear he represented himself, not his country. His feud with fellow speed skater Chad Hedrick overshadowed the achievements of both men.
And Jacobellis ... well, Jacobellis was a cultural experiment unto herself. Leading the snowboard-cross on the final jump, Jacobellis grabbed her board to celebrate, the equivalent of a 360 dunk to end a basketball game. She stumbled and lost her lead. She got a silver medal and a place in front of a firing squad.
On a conference call that evening, and in newspaper columns the next day, old-school media folks lambasted her. They saw her showboating as an affront to competition, while she saw it as youthful exuberance that didn’t work out so well. Looking back, they were both right.
Miller, Davis and Jacobellis are all back at the Olympics eight years later, and truthfully, none of them will emerge as the biggest winner from these games.
Miller is 36, which is just too old to dominate alpine skiing. However, he is determined to get the most out of his talent now, and Sunday, he won bronze in the Super-G, becoming the oldest alpine skier ever to win a medal.
Miller has talked about how his brother’s death devastated him. He has fought for custody of one of his children. We know now what we could not be sure of eight years ago: He cares.
Davis always cared; that was never in dispute. The question was: Care about what? Himself? He stood in the mixed zone at the speed-skating venue Saturday evening, after failing to medal in both the 1000 and 1500, when he had realistic hopes for gold in both. He had a ready-made, pre-printed excuse: U.S. Speedskating switched to controversial new Under Armour suits just before the Olympics, and the whole team has struggled.
Davis has fought with U.S. Speedskating and the media for years. Here was his chance to rip one and fend off the other. How could he resist?
He resisted. Davis blamed himself repeatedly for his disappointing performance. We asked him about the suit controversy, and he admitted it may have gotten into his head, but he said, “I’m not going to sit here and blame my performance necessarily on those things.”
This was quite a turnaround from a man who has asked U.S. Speedskating to keep his biography off its website, and who has declined to participate in the Team Pursuit and try to win a medal with his fellow Americans. In the past, reporters who questioned him came to expect a nasty response from Team Davis, led by his mother. But Shani Davis today does not resemble the Davis from 2006.
A media flak tried to end the questions about the suit. Davis said it was OK. He would answer them. And he did.
He was asked if he would skate in the team pursuit, and he said that was up to the coaches.
He admitted that this failure was tough to handle. After being so unpopular in the past, he finally had a chance to appeal to corporate America. Whatever you say about Davis, you have to say this: He has never hid who he is. He wanted both medals and the coin that comes with them. That chance has disappeared, but as Davis said of his disappointment in the 1,000 meters, his best race: “That hurts, but I deal with it the best I can.”
That hurts, but I deal with it the best I can. You can’t put that on a cereal box, but it’s one of those classic, simple sports lessons that applies to both Little Leaguers and Olympians. Davis will get over it, just as Jacobellis will get over her disappointment.
Jacobellis’s teammate, Faye Gulini, finished fourth, but she talked about how much it must have hurt for Jacobellis. Gulini said she has never had that kind of pressure and could barely understand it. She wondered if it affected her friend. Jacobellis said, “It’s nice to see that Faye was just as upset for me, because she knows my history,” but insisted she did not fall because it was the Olympics. She fell in the Olympics. Not the same.
Eight years ago in Turin, the media seemed to care more about winning than Jacobellis did. Her silly mistake shaped her image and made people think they knew her, when they don’t. Now here she was, 28 years old, and she clearly wanted to win, but she was bracing for pundits and fans who care more about bashing her than about her dreams.
“They’ll spin it every negative way until the cows come home,” she said, and she sounded more resigned than angry. “They don’t understand how the course changes throughout the day, and how you’re tired throughout the day.”
The thing is, Jacobellis’s Olympics did not end when her semifinal did. She had to rush up to the top of the hill for the “small final,” or consolation run. I don’t know why the Olympics insist on making athletes compete right after they have lost their chance at a medal, but this is how it goes. Jacobellis went up.
“At that point, you don’t even want to try,” she says. “So I didn’t even have, like, a great start. I was kind of over it.”
Somewhere on that mountain, her competitive instincts took over and she tried a risky pass. How about that? Jacobellis, eight years after dismissing her showboat move by saying, “I was having fun and that's what snowboarding is,” was trying to win just for the sake of winning.
Her pass worked. You can harp on the fact that it wasn’t the real final, but to hell with that. Lindsey Jacobellis finally finished first.