KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The race course measures nearly 4,000 snowy feet of dips, bumps and jumps, but for the most recognizable snowboarder in the field, it actually spans years. From up top, she can peer beyond the finish line and realize there’s no end in sight.
When Lindsey Jacobellis was 20 years old, she made a mistake. For the past eight years, she has ridden with the weight of that youthful indiscretion. Every race has been viewed by mainstream audience through the prism of that one day in Turin when an unnecessary trick cost her an Olympic gold medal.
“People don’t understand how much pressure is put on her,” said snowboarder Faye Gulini, her American teammate. “It breaks my heart because I think it takes the fun out of it for her, just for this event. She loves the sport; she’s a phenomenal snowboarder. But it’s in her head, you know.”
These Sochi Games were another shot at redemption, and with her unmatched style and grace on the board, Jacobellis was cruising through the snowboard cross field Sunday. She held a big lead in her semifinal race, but again the 28-year-old rider took a big spill, spoiling yet another chance at that elusive gold medal. It was a crushing disappointment for a rider who has won on every stage except this one.
Jacobellis, competing in her third Winter Games, was matter-of-fact about it, saying later that “there’s worse things in life than not winning.”
“Of course, it’s very unfortunate that this didn’t work out for me. . . . You can take it in stride,” she said. “A lot of people can say what they want, put as many opinions out there . . . that’s fine. It’s not really going to affect how I view myself and how I look at my past résumé.”
Jacobellis is the most successful female snowboard cross rider the young sport has seen. Despite her Olympic slip-ups, she has won the world championship three times and just last month claimed her eighth gold medal at the Winter X Games. But for more casual observers, that one second-place finish from the 2006 Olympics – after falling, she recovered and won a silver medal – is remembered more than any of her numerous victories. She carries that with her always.
“I know that there’s motivating factors,” said her friend Nate Holland, a fellow snowboard cross racer. “There’s a lot of pressure on her to do well. . . . And it’s easy to take – if she doesn’t do well – to take a potshot at her and try to knock her down a little bit. As far as do I think that’s a motivating factor? Yeah, bracing not to fail is always a motivating factor when you’re expected to win.”
On Sunday at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, Jacobellis posted the second-fastest time in the qualifying round and easily won her quarterfinal heat. In the semifinal race, she was riding strong from the very start and breezed to a big lead. But about three-quarters of the way through the course, she lost her balance coming off a small bump and fell. She could only watch as the other five riders flew by.
“I thought I was riding really well,” said Jacobellis, who managed to win Sunday’s “small final” consolation race to officially finish in seventh place. “It just didn’t work out for me.”
Gulini, 21, took third in her semifinal heat and earned a spot in the finals. Gulini was riding in sixth place in the final race, but a late crash on the course allowed her to finish fourth. The Czech Republic’s Eva Samkova took gold, followed by Canada’s Dominique Maltais and France’s Chloe Trespeuch.
But most eyes were on Jacobellis, who does so well in virtually every other competition. Despite what Gulini and Holland say, Jacobellis downplayed the internalized pressure.
“I don’t think it has to do with the Olympics,” Jacobellis said. “It’s just a fluke of when things work out for me and when they don’t. I felt very calm and composed, very excited about this event because I really like the course. It just so happened to not work out. It’s hard to accept that.”
This marks the second straight Olympics in which Jacobellis, 28, failed to even make the event’s finals. Even more than her previous attempts, this time the path to the medal podium appeared to be cleared for her. Norway’s Helene Olafsen, the 2009 world champ, and Canada’s Maelle Ricker, the 2010 gold medalist, both crashed early and didn’t even reach the semis. American Jackie Hernandez also had a big fall in the qualifying heat, suffering a concussion and sitting out the ensuing rounds.
“On this course, it kind of seemed like just staying on your feet was important,” Gulini said.
Jacobellis knew that coming in. By this point, those who tune in to snowboard cross once every four years are simply waiting to see if she stays upright. She’s constantly asked to reflect on the 2006 Games and with journalists Jacobellis strikes a serious, thoughtful tone, preferring to look forward, not back. Immediately after Sunday’s fall, she already was anticipating how her latest disappointment would be received back home.
“They’ll spin it every negative way ’til the cows come home,” she said.
While an Olympic gold medal is still noticeably missing from her trophy case, she could be back in four years, another shot at outracing an Olympic memory that has followed her throughout an otherwise stellar career.
“I think she deserves more. . . . I feel like people are so ready to see her fail,” Gulini said. “That’s terrible, you know. That’s not how things should be. She’s a phenomenal snowboarder.”