Jacobellis and Gold, Finally
The years race by. Our youngest daughter turned 17 this week. And Lindsey Jacobellis’ silver medal turns 16 next week. It is one of the most famous silver medals in American winter Olympic history. Jacobellis, at last check, kept it in a little clear box above the mantel in her parents’ house. There was a little door on the box so that anyone who wanted to take the medal out and try it on was welcome.
She was 20 years old when she won that silver medal in Turin, a fresh face in a totally bananas new Olympic sport called snowboardcross. In snowboardcross (sometimes known as boardercross), four snowboarders at the same time race down a mountain of mounds and twists and jumps and dead ends. It is NASCAR meets ballet meets an NBA halftime trampoline dunk exhibition. It is a sport specially designed for having fun and showing off.
Jacobellis, you will remember, was leading the first Olympic snowboardcross by a lot (by half a mountain, I wrote back then) and she came upon her last jump with the gold medal basically in hand. And to celebrate, she tried a little trick on the last jump, one called “The Method” where reached down with one hand and grabbed the board in midair. It was something she had done a million times before. In her world, I would say it was roughly the degree of difficulty as a tomahawk dunk is for LeBron James.
This time, though, the maneuver somehow affected her balance, and she fell on the landing, allowing a Swedish competitor named Tanya Frieden to race by and pick up the gold. Jacobellis was so far ahead that she still had time to scramble to her feet and slide in for the silver.
What followed was, I must admit, one of those moments when I wasn’t too thrilled about being a sportswriter. Jacobellis understood that she had goofed, but she certainly didn’t see it as human tragedy. “Snowboarding is fun,” she explained when asked why she tried the trick.
But we — using the collective “we” here for the sportswriters present — disabused her of that notion immediately. Snowboarding may be fun in non-Olympic years, but it soon became clear to Jacobellis that in the next days’ papers she would not be presented as a talented kid having a little too much fun on a mountain. No, she had unwittingly become a symbol of something — a symbol of the “look at me” generation, a symbol of new-age athletes who did not take the Olympics seriously enough, a symbol of style over substance.
“Silver is still pretty good,” she tried to say, but by then she was choking up a bit, and soon after the press conference ended as Jacobellis broke down in tears.
In the first moments, I regrettably admit, I found myself leaning to the side of my writer friends. I mean, Jacobellis had an Olympic gold medal in her grasp. She didn’t need to add in that last showoff maneuver. It was dumb.
But then, something occurred to me — something that will seem obvious now but in the moment felt like a small revelation: Her whole sport was about showing off. That’s why it exists. That’s why she had fallen in love with it in the first place. All of these snowboard sports — snowboardcross and big air and halfpipe and slopestyle, basically everything involving a snowboard — are about showing off, doing a trick that blows minds and drops jaws, flying high above the snow, a little higher than anyone else, a little faster than anyone else, and leaving everyone a bit awed.
And I had lost sight of that because I was at the Olympics and when you’re a writer at the Olympics, you get lost in it, you start to believe that there’s nothing else in the world, nothing, that matters as much as the luge final or team handball qualifier you happen to be watching. This was the first snowboardcross race I had ever watched in my entire life. I barely knew the sport existed. And now I was supposed to treat a 20-year-old snowboarder at the end of a bonkers race getting a touch too excited and trying one too many tricks as some sort of competitive crime?
Nah, I reeled myself in.
And every four years since, I have rooted for Lindsey Jacobellis to get her gold medal.
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There’s a strange little contradiction here, by the way — Jacobellis has always insisted that the loss in Turin did not bother her as much as it bothered other people, and I believe that.
But she has also admitted that if she had won gold, she might have retired and gone on to other things, and I believe that too. “I didn’t love the sport then,” she says. So why go on?
Right. The loss pushed her to go on.
And in going on, she truly fell in love with the sport she was so good at.
Four years after Turin, in Vancouver, with the story of redemption* very much in the air, Jacobellis swerved off course and bumped a gate in the semifinal, which disqualified her. I obviously did not know that was the rule. But, alas, it was.
*Jacobellis has always loathed that word “redemption.” Redemption is the act of being saved from sin, error or an evil. She had simply tried one too many tricks in a snowboard race. She did not need to be redeemed.
Four years after that, in Sochi, she was leading her semifinal heat but felt her lead narrowing and decided to push a little closer to the edge. This led to her crashing one more time. That’s the thing about snowboardcross — crashes are not a bug of the sport, they are a feature. “Something always happens at the Olympics,” she said sadly after that race. “It’s kind of a bummer.”
That could have been her last Olympics — she was 28 and had already achieved so much in the sport. She had won three World Championships. She had made the Winter X Games her own. But she decided to give it one more shot, 2018, Pyeongchang, South Korea, and she made it to the final one more time, and she led for much of the race. But snowboardcross is a wild sport, and in a mad dash to the finish, four racers got to the final line within a half-second of each other. Jacobellis was fourth.
That surely seemed like the end, except Jacobellis did not step away.
And there she was on Wednesday in Beijing, one more time in the snowboardcross final. She’s 36 now, a five-time Olympian, a legend of her sport, an inspiration to young snowboarders everywhere. And this time she took the lead from the start, and she kept the lead, and going into the final jump there’s no telling what was going on in her head. But she nailed the jump, got into a crouch, and crossed the line first.
It was the first gold medal for the United States at these Olympics.
Then she put her hand over her heart and smiled.
“It didn’t seem real,” she would say.
One wild thing about being a sportswriter for a long time is that you watch entire careers happen. You see the rookie nervously show up in the clubhouse on Day 1, and then you see the player become a star, and then you see the player begin to fade, and then you see the player get the standing ovation from the crowd on the last day, and maybe you even see the player give a speech at the Hall of Fame. It’s so strange. I think often about the Saigyō poem that Roger Kahn included in The Boys of Summer:
Did I ever dream
I should pass this way again
As an old man?
I have lived such a long time —
Nakayama of the Night
Our youngest daughter was 1 year old when Lindsey Jacobellis grabbed her snowboard at the end of a race. On Wednesday, the day Jacobellis won her gold medal, our youngest daughter drove to school and talked about college plans. The years do race by.