Feb 16, 2014, 7:45 PM EDT
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Lindsey Jacobellis keeps her 2006 silver medal for snowboard cross in a clear, small frame above the mantel at her parent’s home where everyone can see it. The frame has a little door on it. This is so visitors can pull it out and try on the silver medal whenever they want.
Sure, the first thought Sunday when watching Jacobellis crash in Olympics snowboard cross again, missing out on the gold medal again, was a rush of heartbreak. Obviously. “Kind of a bummer,” Jacobellis would say. For almost a decade now, Jacobellis has been the best in the world in her crazy sport. And it is HER sport. She has won world championships, world cup championships, every individual event imaginable. She has come back from injury after injury. She is the one name in snowboard cross that people know.
And the Olympics keep crushing her spirits.
“I’ll probably win my next event,” she says, sadly. “Timing. I’ve just had bad timing.”
So, yes, the first thought was heartbreak for Jacobellis. Everyone in and around Sochi seemed to feel it. Olympic athletes took to Twitter and Facebook to offer condolences. All you had to do was say the name “Jacobellis” anywhere, and it was all but guaranteed that the person would just drop his or her head and say, “Oh, that’s just awful.”
You certainly know the story by now. At the 2006 Torino Olympics, Jacobellis was the fresh-faced young star of a brand new sport called snowboard cross. In the sport, multiple snowboarders race at the same time down a mountain of bumps and jumps and wicked turns. So, yes, it was insane and dangerous-looking and just plain dangerous and Jacobellis was 20 years old, the best in the world, a star of television commercials, a photo on magazine covers.
And, predictably, she was leading the medal race by about half a mountain when she came upon her final jump. She was so taken with the moment that she decided to do a method grab – just a little hot dog grab of the board – and it backfired. She landed and fell. She was able to get to her feet fairly quickly and get to the finish line. But Switzerland’s Tanja Frieden passed her for the gold. Jacobellis got that silver that rests on her mantel.
With that she suddenly became a symbol of things that she had no interest in representing. People made fun of her and her meltdown. More disconcertingly, many seemed angry with her – ANGRY! – as if she had betrayed them with her little show. They said she typified a culture eager to celebrate itself and youth that did not respect the Olympic stage.
And here Lindsey Jacobellis just thought she fell trying to do a funny little trick.
“Do you think people are overreacting?” a reporter asked her in a teleconference.
“I think so,” she said, “I mean it’s just a race and anything can happen.”
“Just a race?” the reporter countered. “It’s not for the Olympic gold medal?”
“I have the first silver for snowboard cross ever,” she pleaded. “So you have to give me something, right?”
That teleconference ended abruptly with Jacobellis breaking down in tears. She simply did not understand the fury in the reaction. She did not understand why her crash was such a big deal. Her sport is all about crashes. She had tried a basic trick she had done countless times before and it had not come off. Stupid? OK, she’d admit that. But it wasn’t like she ha defaced the Olympic rings. It’s sports, you know?
“I was having fun,” she said then. “That’s what snowboarding is.”
Four years later, in Vancouver, her story was redemption, redemption, redemption – could Jacobellis redeem her Torino blunder? Redemption, of course, meant winning gold. NPR counted 26,700 combinations of “Jacobellis” and “redemption” on Google. There was to be no story of redemption. In the semifinal, Jacobellis stumbled on a landing, drifted off course and hit a gate. She was disqualified.
“It was really hard to deal with it in 2006 because I was so young,” she says. “It wasn’t as bad in Vancouver because I was getting a little older. It just didn’t work out.”
So what about Sunday’s sadness? She was leading her semifinal by a healthy margin, but toward the she was worried that the group behind was gaining. She pushed a little too much and came over one of those bumps a little too hard and, as she explained, “the board keeps going but the body stays behind.” She fell and then, in an effort to get back on her board, kind of tumbled backward and slid back into the course and out of the running.
And this time her responses were a confused mix of pain (“Something always happens at the Olympics”) and a brave face (“That’s just how the wheel turns”) and bafflement (“I win every other event but it just doesn’t happen here,”) and sadness (“Yeah, kind of a bummer”). Her friend and American teammate Faye Gulini made the point that Jacobellis hides the intense pressure she feels. “(The Olympics) breaks her heart,” Gulini said. “I think it takes the fun out of it for her.”
But Jacobellis denied that pointedly. She said it was just a fluke. She referred to fickleness of her sport – six snowboarders going down a mountain at the same time will crash a lot. Just a couple of races before Jacobellis, the defending gold medalist Maelle Ricker of Canada also crashed out without winning a medal.
“This is what makes it a popular sport at the Olympics,” Jacobellis said. “Unfortunately, it’s tough. It didn’t work out for me.”
Jacobellis is not the same person she was eight years ago or even four years ago. She’s 28 now, a three-time world champion, an eight-time X Games gold medalist, the most decorated World Cup snowboard cross athlete ever. She is an activist for animal rights, a spokesperson for several companies, a legend of her sport.
No, Lindsey Jacobellis probably won’t ever win an Olympic gold medal (though she did not rule out trying again in four years). And that hurt will linger for a while. The first thought is heartbreak. But there’s a second thought.
“There are worse things in life than not winning,” she says, and yes, that’s the second thought. Sure, it’s easy to get caught up in the importance of the Olympics and winning. But there in her house, she has that silver medal in in a frame that opens so anyone can wear it.
How cool is that? When you talk to Jacobellis, away from all of it, you realize she’s a happy person doing exactly what she wants to do. Think of it: Would her life really be so different if that medal in the frame was gold?
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