Lindsey Jacobellis wins the 1st American gold medal at the Beijing Games
Lindsey Jacobellis had the finish line in sight again. Long the most dominant athlete in the racing sport of snowboard cross, she has been so many times in the Olympics.
However, she had never gotten there first, not even in 2006, when she took the lead just meters from the line and lost the gold medal in one of the most notorious Olympic blunders ever. ‘story.
Wednesday, during her fifth Olympic test, at 36, she will not let the gold slip away. Jacobellis finally captured his storybook ending by giving the United States its first gold medal at the Beijing Games.
This is the story of a gold medal, lost and then found again, 16 years later.
Jacobellis led the four-woman final from the start, her blonde hair spilling out of her helmet as the riders spent 90 seconds navigating the winding course of banked turns, washboard rolls and big jumps.
This time, when the finish was in sight, Jacobellis crouched down. As she crossed the line, she flashed a huge smile and put her hands on her heart, as if to hold it.
“It seemed like an incredible moment,” she said afterwards. “It didn’t seem real at the time.”
His win was a story of quiet perseverance, though it will be painted as redemption for Jacobellis. She has never seen him like this. She never considered her fall at the Turin Olympics in 2006 – when a premature celebration cost her a certain victory – as something to redeem. It was a momentary mistake, a bit of childish fantasy. It cost her in ways she will never know. She would like to think now that it helped her, stimulated her.
At the time, Jacobellis was 20, a young star in the making, endorsements pending, the gold medal in sight. But on her last jump, without competitors, she added some flair in the air – a hold of her board. She landed on her heels and fell onto her back, spinning three times in a dusting of snow.
Switzerland’s Tanja Frieden stormed past before Jacobellis could pull herself together and ride to the finish for second place, one of the most unforgettable silver medals in Olympic Games history.
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“The saddest snow angel in the Alps,” the New York Times called her that day.
The moment, in its simplest and cruelest form, was the turning point of a long saga. As a girl, Jacobellis was known as Lucky Lindsey. As a woman, at least at the Olympics, she was anything but.
At the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, Jacobellis swerved in a semifinal and missed the final. And in 2014, in Sochi, Russia, she was leading a semi-final when she stumbled on a series of small late-race jumps and missed the final again. In 2018, she returned to the final, another chance to win a gold medal. She finished fourth.
It gnawed at her more than she’d let on Wednesday, or maybe more than she remembered. In an interview ahead of the 2018 Games, she admitted as much.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if the media didn’t harangue me for something that happened 12 years ago?” she said then. “I’m sure we can go into everyone’s past 12 years ago and pick out something that they could have, should have, would have done. It’s just mine was on a world stage that people have hard to forget, or they just think that’s the only thing that happened or defined me as an athlete.
At that time, she had hired a mental trainer, Denise Hull, to help him perform better under pressure. USA Snowboard Team coach Peter Foley said at the time that the disappointments of the quadrennial public were on Jacobellis’s mind.
“She had a bad experience with the Olympics, and in many ways she dreads the Olympics now,” Foley said at the time. “It would be nice if she could feel better about it.”
Between Olympic disappointments, Jacobellis spent years winning World Cup trophies, X Games titles and world championships. She became a role model in her sport, revered for her work ethic and consistency. Outside of the sports bubble, however, questions about the Olympics came up, relentlessly, every four years.
She constantly downplayed their importance. Asked about 2006, she never felt the need to explain herself. It happened. What could she do?
That’s why she smiled the day after her win on Wednesday and waved as she stepped onto the top step of the podium for the post-race flower ceremony, but never released the unbridled emotion at which others might have expected, after being bottled for 16 years.
Having spent his adult life trying to move beyond the moment, it would have been incongruous to treat the gold medal as an exorcism. She wasn’t comfortable validating anyone’s notion of redemption.
“I never thought of it that way – it just wasn’t on my mind,” she said. “I just wanted to come here and compete. It would have been a good thing, but I think if I had tried to spin the thought of redemption, it would have somehow distracted from the task at hand.
But the 2006 spill may have changed her life, she acknowledged, perhaps more than a gold medal then or now.
“It really shaped me into the individual that I am and kept me hungry, and really helped me keep fighting in the sport,” Jacobellis said. If she had won gold then, she said, “I probably would have quit the sport then, because I wasn’t really having fun with it.”
As the sun fell on her fifth Olympics, Jacobellis let others fill in the emotional gaps. Belle Brockhoff from Australia, a longtime friend and rival, was among the swarms of admirers who congratulated her.
“She’s like, ‘I’m so happy this happened for you, because I was little when I watched you in 2006,'” Jacobellis said.
Her teammate Stacy Gaskill, 21, said it meant everything to see Jacobellis finally win their sport’s biggest prize. As Gaskill spoke of her victory, she began to cry.
“I don’t think there are any words that can capture this moment,” Gaskill said. “For Lindsey to win at her fifth Games and to be at the top of the sport for so long and to inspire so many young girls like me, she is the face of this sport.”