- Lindsey Jacobellis had every reason to ditch the sport she fell in love with after her infamous blunder at the 2006 Games. That catastrophy, however, only fortified the bond with the sport she'll forever be connected to.
BONGPYEONG, South Korea — We will get there, OK? Relax. Of course we will get there. This is a story about Lindsey Jacobellis, and if you know the name at all, you know that all conversational roads lead to the same place. She knows it better than anybody. So just hang on and savor this moment: Jacobellis, at the top of the Olympic snowboard cross big final …
There are six riders up there. Alexandra Jekova is 30, but the other four women are 24, 22, 16 (16!) and 23. Jacobellis will turn 33 this summer, and she feels every bit of that. She injured her knee training on this course, and “it’s just really, really hard to land on a knee that’s had surgery three different times.” It was also too late to get a cortisone shot and still compete. She says she has been on an “ibuprofen diet.”
The race begins. Jacobellis sees an opening at the start, a “hole shot,” and she shoots into the lead. This could be the story NBC wants, the story the media watching down in the mixed zone would surely love to write: Jacobellis, finally winning gold, 12 years after … well, we will get there.
Jacobellis has been doing this long enough to know: “this course, you don’t really want to have the hole shot, because somebody is going to draft you.” Snowboard cross is a wild and wildly entertaining sport, a rare side-by-side race down a mountain. Jacobellis doesn’t want to get stuck in traffic. She takes the lead and tries to hang onto it the whole way.
This is a story about Lindsey Jacobellis, but it is not a story about what happened in Turin in 2006, and it is not even really about Friday’s race here, when she finished fourth, 0.03 seconds behind the bronze medalist. This is a love story.
Looking back, Jacobellis fell in love the moment she stopped being our sweetheart. Nobody could see that at the time. It was all too painful. She was 19 years old in Turin, pigtailed and all, Chloe Kim long before we had heard of Chloe Kim. Who knows what would have happened if she had just cruised to the gold medal that she had basically won, instead of grabbing her board for an early celebration before she finished?
She won silver, the most infamous silver in Winter Olympics history. Snowboarding and freestyle skiing and their wacky variations were still relatively new to the Olympics, and Jacobellis accidentally stepped into a cultural minefield. She wasn’t just a kid who made a mistake. She was held up as living proof that certain sports did not belong in the Olympics.
“I did not love the sport when I was that young going into it,” she said Friday. “I was told that I was America’s sweetheart, that you’re going to win … that’s just a lot of pressure to put on somebody and go on a world stage. It’s enough to really throw somebody for a loop.”
She says she would have retired if she had won gold that day. This is the irony of the whole controversy in Turin: critics said she didn’t give a damn about winning, but winning would have satisfied her. Losing kept her going. Jacobellis gave her mom that silver medal, and she kept chasing.
Was she chasing gold? Sure she was. But in that pursuit, Jacobellis discovered a love for the sport that no endorsement deal could have brought her. She went to Vancouver in 2010 and finished fifth. She went to Sochi four years later and didn’t even make the big final. Snowboard cross has two finals, the big and the small, and if you don’t make the big one, the one with the medals, you still compete in the small. As Jacobellis said in Sochi, “At that point, you don’t even want to try.” But she loved the sport in ways that she had not loved it in 2006. She went to the top of the course for the small final in Sochi and she won it.
Some time between Turin and Vancouver, a kid named Meghan Tierney was introduced to Jacobellis at Mount Hood in Oregon. Tierney was just 11 or 12 years old, terrified to try snowboard cross. Jacobellis convinced her to try. On Friday, She coached her.
Jacobellis says, “I always told her: ‘You never know where this could bring you. If you love this sport, keep at it. Have fun with it. You never know what doors could open up because of it and where you end up in life.’”
This week, Tierney joined Jacobellis on the U.S. Olympic team. Medals stay in one place; the love of a sport can be shared. She has spent the past few years training for these Olympics, but also organizing an event called the Supergirl Snow Pro at Bear Mountain in California. It will be held this March. The Supergirl Snow Pro is a snowboard cross event just for women, the first of its kind. Jacobellis says, “It’s my new baby right now.”
At times, Jacobellis and the media are like two drivers going in opposite directions down a one-way street, each convinced the other is going the wrong way. Jacobellis thinks she has answered enough questions about 2006. Reporters think that’s why people are interested in her. They are probably both correct.
Friday, when one questioner mentioned what happened in 2006, Jacobellis misunderstood and said, “Did you say, ‘What happened?’ You can look that up.”
She is understandably tired of the topic, but she can see the humor in it now.
“How often do you remember the second-place medalist?” she said, laughing. “Most of the time you only remember the first place. So that’s just how it went down.”
Jacobellis’s mistake brought ridicule to her, but attention to snowboard cross. That equation did not work for her in 2006, when she was supposed to be America’s golden girl. But after all these years of loving the sport, she seems to appreciate the good that came out of it. That’s not the same as being glad it happened, but it’s something.
Fellow American Faye Gulini said Friday, “When I tell people what I do, the first thing they say, ‘Is that the sport where the girl threw away the gold medal?’ And I’m like, ‘At least you know what I do.’ They either know that or don’t know anything. She’s a pioneer of the sport.”
People ask Gulini if she feels bad for Jacobellis. She always says no. She points out that Jacobellis reached a level of fame and success that most of the other riders will never reach: “She’s the best at this sport. She makes more money than anyone … She made one mistake, and it sometimes haunts her, but I think we’re far enough out that it’s rare that it even really gets brought up until the Olympics.”
A gold medal Friday would have changed how we view Lindsey Jacobellis, and in some ways it would have changed how she views herself. Gold medals do that. But at the end of the big final, Jacobellis said, “I mean, I could be upset about it, but where is that going to get me? Anything can happen in boarder cross, and I didn’t get injured today. I’ve been dealing with past injuries flaring up on me. The fact I’m still walking out of here is great.”
She thought about her mom, who always worries. Friday was Anita Jacobellis’s birthday. Her little girl is 32 years old and at peace.