What a Ride

So captivating were the triumphs of America's free-spirited snowboarders that even a showboating fall costing gold could not diminish their impact
February 27, 2006

SO WHO did youcome up with? Fred Merkle? Wrong Way Riegels? Bill Buckner? After you finishreaching for comparisons, think about cutting Lindsey Jacobellis some slack. ¶Yes, the 20-year-old gave away a gold medal last Friday as if handing a pin toa fawning poliziotto at an Olympic Village checkpoint. In the final of thefirst women's Olympic snowboardcross, Jacobellis took a Secretariat-like leadover Switzerland's Tanja Frieden, then couldn't resist a bit of showboating.Flying off a jump in full view of the packed grandstand, she reached back anddown with her left hand and grabbed the heel edge of her board in a stunt knownas a Method air. But the move appeared to throw Jacobellis off line. Uponlanding she caught her heelside edge, falling backward and skidding into anightmare of her own making. As she scrambled to get back onto the course,Jacobellis was overtaken by Frieden and had to settle for silver. While hergaffe sparked incredulity and harsh judgment around the world, it was tellingthat Jacobellis's peers and coaches were inclined to shrug their shoulders andgo easy on her.

The fact is,throwing a Method within sight of the finish line--starting your end zone dancebefore you cross the goal line--isn't the least bit puzzling to longtimeboarders. In a culture of baggy pants and $3, XXL truckstop ballcaps, stylematters. A lot.

Nobody said boolast Thursday when men's snowboardcross gold medalist Seth Wescott garnished anotherwise ho-hum first-heat victory with a stylish grab on the homestretch.Plenty of riders did the same thing. It's just that, unlike Jacobellis, none ofthem had the misfortune of winding up on their cabooses.

Snowboarding is asport with a proud heritage of "freethinking, creative people who oftenfall a bit outside the status quo," says Mark Sullivan, publisher ofSnowboard magazine. One of them is Shaun White, the guitar-playing,skateboarding hair farmer and reigning men's halfpipe gold medalist. During arecent discussion of his formative boarding years, White recalled watching thelegendary Damian Saunders, "who had a black Mohawk and would backflip offany jump. And he had those fangs."

You mean he rodewith those plastic Halloween fangs?

"No, man--hefiled his teeth into the shape of fangs."

This, friends, iswhere snowboarding is coming from. And it's why Bardonecchia was the mosthopping venue at these Games, from the packed stands to the inspired selectionsof D.J. Chainsaw to the Euro-babes posing with competitors on a sofa at thebase of the hill. Curling, this was not. If you find that off-putting, well,that's a shame. Because halfpipe and snowboardcross (SBX)--a series offour-person races down a serpentine, jump-strewn course featuring whoops,berms, gates, Wu Tang steps and more physical contact than Dancing with theStars--are going to be around for many years. And right now, the U.S. ownsthose two events.

While Bode Millertried to find a finish line and Johnny Weir searched in vain for his aura,American snowboarders were basically running the table, hauling in three goldmedals and three silvers. In so doing they were not pushing their sport closerto the cultural mainstream. That's because it's already there.

"The Olympicsare just a peek into what's happening on mountains all over the country,"says Jake Burton, snowboarding's Henry Ford. "They're a showcase for asport that's very athletic, that goes hand in hand with an outdoor lifestylethat's healthy and fun. All of these things are universally appealing. It's whyour sport has succeeded in spite of a lot of adversity."

Back in the '70s,when he was making boards in a barn, Burton would arrive at a ski resort onlyto be told, he recalls, "There's no way you're riding that thing on thismountain." As more and more kids started showing up with snowboards, resortowners began to catch on. "Instead of building a video arcade in thebasement of the lodge for the kids who had no interest in skiing with theirparents, they started building halfpipes," says Burton.

By 1999, 3.3million Americans said they had snowboarded at least twice that year, accordingto a study conducted by the National Sporting Goods Association. Five yearslater that figure had doubled. But you don't need stats to know that boardingis ascendant in this country. "Just go to any ski area," says U.S.snowboarding coach Peter Foley. When the choice is left up to them, "mostkids want to be snowboarders. It's what kids do. It's what modern peopledo."

If Picabo Streetwere born today, would the former World Cup champion skier opt instead toshred? While Burton wouldn't go there, he did offer this: "I do thinkthere'd be a lot less tension in Bode Miller's life if he were asnowboarder."

Two years aheadof Miller at Maine's Carrabassett Valley Academy was another supremely giftedathlete. Unlike Miller, Wescott gravitated to boarding. After failing to makethe 1998 Olympic halfpipe team, he became one of the top SBXers in the world.Three years ago, when his adopted sport gained admittance to the Games, he drewa bead on Turin. A week before the competition Wescott took the chair lift upand got his first look at the course. "I saw those Wu Tang steps right outof the gate," he reported to Foley, back at the bottom of the hill. "Iwas like, 'Oh, yeah, it's mine!'"

The Wu Tangsteps, a series of waist-high dips through which riders stand straight in thetrough, then huck their boards over the lip, favor a taller rider: Wescott is6'1". After an uneventful run-through to the final, he fell behind a Slovaknamed Radoslav Zidek in the medal race. Remaining calm, hewing to the racingline that had served him well all day, Wescott executed a breathtaking passentering a turn in the bottom half of the course, then held off Zidek, barely,for the gold.

Shortly afterWescott descended from that chair-lift recon, the U.S. snowboarding teamclimbed onto a Sno-Cat for an official picture. While most of the athletes worethe team's distinctive white pinstripe unis, Jacobellis set tongues waggingwith an ensemble that included blue jeans, pink boots and matching pinkhandbag. As the world would find out eight days later, here was a young womanto whom style matters a great deal.

While the men hadtheir share of tumbles, the women's SBX was a true crashfest, prompting awriter from The New York Times to remark, "It's more fun when girls wipeout." The first 20 seconds of the women's final featured two epic spills.Canada's Maelle Ricker, the fastest qualifier, lost control coming off a jump,went airborne and landed hard on her back, earning herself a trip down themountain on a stretcher. Dominique Maltais, a Montreal firefighter, clickedboards with Frieden and went crashing into a safety fence. Slowed by thatcontact, Frieden (Wescott's on-and-off girlfriend of the last three years)found herself 40 yards behind Jacobellis, who needed only to stay upright topluck her country's fourth gold medal in four snowboarding events.

Jacobellisinsisted afterward that she'd thrown the Method not to jazz up her run but as away to stabilize her board in the face of a strong wind that had been whippingthat jump, and which had given her problems in her qualifying runs.

That explanationwas a reach. Neither Frieden nor Maltais, who extricated herself from the fenceto claim bronze, mentioned any problems with the wind. By the time Jacobellisgot to NBC's Turin studios some eight hours later, her story had evolved.

"I got caughtup in the moment," she glumly admitted to Bob Costas. "I made amistake." After a second interview, this one with Jim Lampley, she tookrefuge in the green room with her agent, Josh Schwartz. When she came out, sheappeared to have been crying. Finally, Jacobellis was led to a makeshiftstudio, where a jocund British photographer nattered at her, "Happy, happy!Both hands on the medal! Exuberant now! Nice and cheery!"

Her smiledisappeared the millisecond the shoot was over. So, in short order, didJacobellis.

Go easy on thekid. "You can't crucify her for trying a Method," says Sullivan."She's done that trick 2,000 times. This time it didn't work. It's not likeshe tried a twisting backflip."

Look at it thisway, says Foley: "This will just make 2010 more fun."

SI.COM

For more Olympics coverage, including BrianCazeneuve's awards and Richard Deitsch's blog, go to SI.com/olympics.

PHOTOPhotograph by Carl YarbroughFLIGHT PLAN Wescott (3, leading his semifinal heat)pulled off an impressive pass during his gold medal run, then showed his true colors (inset). PHOTOBOB MARTIN[See caption above.] NINE PHOTOSBOB MARTIN (9) FALLINGSHORT Jacobellis was well ahead when she grabbed the edge of her board (left),a stunt that ended with her sprawled off the course and scrambling forsilver. PHOTOAL TIELEMANSSHOW OF HANDS The finish was as hard for Frieden (center) and Maltais (right) to comprehend as it was for Jacobellis.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)