The Visa commercial makes anyone who has competed against Lindsey Jacobellis howl. You've probably seen it: An attractive young snowboarder waits at the top of a mountain wearing an expression of concern as she surveys the competition. Her coach gives a firm pep talk to bolster her confidence: "O.K., Lindsey, this is the last big one before Torino. You can do this. Don't look at them, look at me! Picture yourself alone on the mountain. Imagine yourself on the medal stand. No one can touch you...." She looks doubtful, unsure, tentative ... all the things the 20-year-old Jacobellis is not. ¬∂ "Lindsey is pretty much the most self-assured person I have ever met," says Avery Mackenzie, who competed against her in Grand Prix events for years and was a forerunner with her down the halfpipe (testing its conditions before the competition) at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
"And she has a right to be. Not only can she do everything, she does everything. She's confident and goes out and wins. Everything: racing to halfpipe to boardercross. And though this may make her seem incredibly intimidating--which she is--she is also terribly nice and fun."
Jacobellis is an Olympic marketer's dream. Not only does she have a killer smile, saucer-sized greenish-blue eyes and a shock of blonde curls, but she also plays the piano, speaks in complete sentences, avoids saying "like" or "dude" during interviews and still horses around with her teammates in the back of the van. "She's the Wheaties-box kid," says U.S. halfpipe coach Bud Keene. "Lindsey's so made for the mainstream media. The stereotype for snowboarders is they come from a hippie upbringing and all that that entails. That's not Lindsey. She's the all-American girl, the same girl I met when she was 12. She's a winner and always will be."
What further separates Lucky Lindsey (as her parents dubbed her as a child) from other snowboarders is that she has at least an outside chance to be a double medalist in Turin. Jacobellis is the defending world champion in the new Olympic sport of snowboardcross (a.k.a. boardercross, or SBX), and finished last season ranked third in the U.S. in halfpipe. (She was the 2005 Grand Prix overall halfpipe champion.) The two disciplines are so different that, Keene says, "it would be like someone racing Super G and also doing the freestyle aerials. She's the only person in the world, man or woman, who has a chance to medal in both."
Snowboardcross, for the uninitiated, is pack racing downhill over varied terrain. Four to six racers hurtle down a course, maneuvering for position on the turns, sometimes passing each other in the air. While elbowing and hip-checking aren't permitted, there's plenty of contact. "You're not allowed to push, but you are allowed to keep others out of your space," Jacobellis says. How might that be done, exactly? "You can use a stiff arm like in football. I've had situations where three of us go off a jump, I'm in the middle, and the other two try to cut me off by pinching together. You need to straight-arm them to keep them away."
Other man-made obstacles that must be navigated during the minute-plus of action are series of bumps called rollers (as in motocross), banked turns and jumps. The edges of riders' snowboards are filed razor-sharp, and speeds down the icy course can exceed 55 mph. Lindsey's mother, Anita, can't even bring herself to watch. "If two boards touch, those riders are screwed," says Keene. "Boardercross is crazy. It's like roller derby. You have three other people who can take you down and hurt you. You can either put the pedal down or wuss out, and Lindsey almost always punches it. She goes for it."
It's been that way since she was 10. That was when, following the lead of brother Ben, now 25, Lindsey put away her skis and started racing her snowboard down the slopes of Stratton Mountain in Vermont, where her family drove every weekend from their home in Roxbury, Conn. "I wanted to try everything he did," Lindsey says.
That included racing all-terrain vehicles, firing short-hop grounders at each other full speed and wakeboarding in the summers on a nearby lake. On Friday afternoons in winter Anita would take her two adrenaline junkies out of school early enough to beat the weekend traffic and drive up to Stratton for the boardercross races.
"Ben was her sparring partner," says Keene of Lindsey's brother, who's ranked fifth in SBX among U.S. men. "If she can keep up with him--and she can--she can beat any woman."
Lindsey attended high school at the Stratton Mountain School, where classes are scheduled around training time. At 16 she won her first big SBX event, the 2001 U.S. Open, which persuaded her to give up racing gates in snowboarding's giant slalom the next year to concentrate on SBX and halfpipe. "Boardercross is more fun," she says.
And more dangerous. Jacobellis has avoided serious injury so far, but over the years she has sprained her ankles and both knees numerous times, suffered concussions and has crashed so often she now has chronic tightness and pain in her shoulders and back. Because there are no permanent boardercross courses (they're constructed for specific events), the only way to practice, she says, "is to go top to bottom of a hill as fast as I can. But when I do, I always get yelled at by the ski patrol."
Jacobellis first won the world junior snowboardcross championship in 2002. The next year she added the world junior halfpipe title to her trophy case, also winning the first of three straight X Games SBX championships. In 2003-04 she was undefeated in snowboardcross, a remarkable achievement in a sport in which wipeouts are so prevalent. In the current U.S. rankings, she has more than three times as many points as her closest pursuer.
Her secret? "Getting out front and staying there works," she says with a laugh. "But my starts aren't particularly fast, so I have to look for places to pass." At 5'6" and 130 pounds, she's smaller and lighter than most of her competitors, which means she doesn't glide as fast. So she prefers more technical courses, filled with jumps and banked turns. "I like rollers," she says, "because I can gain speed on them."
Her brother makes a point of training with her before big races, helping her find the fastest line on the course. Otherwise she insists on training alone. "She doesn't come to the mountain to make friends," says Keene, who credits Lindsey's first coach, Scott Palmer, for her form and technical expertise. "She wants to be in the winner's circle. She wears her competitiveness on her sleeve a little more than most girls. And if you can scare someone before the race starts, you're halfway there. Lindsey definitely does that in snowboardcross. Even as a little girl, she always had the eye of the tiger."
Which may be why the logo Jacobellis designed for her Palmer snowboard depicts three reclining saber-toothed tigers being watched over by a cavewoman. "They're obviously strong animals, but she has control over them," Jacobellis says. "She's sort of a Mother Nature symbol."
Jacobellis uses a slightly shorter board in the halfpipe. She is one of a handful of women in the world who can do a 900--wherein the snowboarder goes into the side of the wall facing the slope and spins 2 1/2 forward revolutions in the air. Still, compared with SBX, she's an underdog in halfpipe; she'll have to perform extremely well in the two remaining U.S. Grand Prix qualifiers, at Mountain Creek, N.J., on Jan. 20-22 to guarantee an Olympic spot in that discipline. "There are not a lot of expectations for me to do well," she says of halfpipe. "It's hard for me to get in enough training time for both. I have to work twice as hard to learn a new trick."
The one she's working on now, and which Keene considers the key to her success, is a backside 540, which calls for hitting the side of the wall backward and performing a 1 1/2-revolution jump from her heels. She's been working on the move for more than a year and needs it to balance her program.
How much longer Jacobellis continues to compete in both events depends on how things go in Turin. "I've been the best at boardercross for a while," she says. "So of course I'd be disappointed if I didn't win. But it's freaky. You can't predict it."
What is predictable is that with Jacobellis as its face, snowboardcross will attract more interest than new Olympic sports generally do. In addition to her Visa commercial Jacobellis has endorsement deals with Dunkin' Donuts, Paul Mitchell hair products and Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. "Josh is trying to set me up for life," Jacobellis grins, nodding to her agent, Josh Schwartz.
Lucky Lindsey is giving him plenty of help.