ZHANGJIAKOU, China — She was bundled in her Team USA parka and he was still in his kelly-green racing bib when they bowed their heads together and, in the middle of a reporter’s question during a news conference, devolved into giggles.
Skim the entrant list for mixed-team snowboard cross at the Beijing Olympics, which provides the name, bib number, country and year of birth for the 30 racers competing in teams of two, and perhaps nod with understanding at the abundance of dates in the 1990s. Wince somewhat at the four 2001s. Don’t even mention the lone, ungodly 2003.
Then arrive at bib No. 5-1: Baumgartner, Nick, USA, 1981, and bib No. 5-2: Jacobellis, Lindsey, USA, 1985, and marvel, then come back to the giggling. It might be the only appropriate response.
Jacobellis, 36, and Baumgartner, 40, made history when they won the gold medal in mixed-team snowboard cross’s Olympic debut Saturday at Genting Snow Park.
Competing in her fifth Olympics, Jacobellis already was the oldest American woman to win an Olympic medal at the Winter Games when she won the women’s snowboard cross event this week, ending a 16-year wait for a gold medal after her infamous flub at the 2006 Games in which an early celebration cost her first place. Now she has two.
Baumgartner, at his fourth Games, is the oldest snowboarder to win an Olympic medal and the oldest U.S. gold medalist at the Winter Games since 1948, when 43-year-old Frank Tyler steered Team USA to a win in four-man bobsled.
“I’ll get him next time,” said Baumgartner, whose first career medal came after 12 years of trying.
Jacobellis and Baumgartner joined other experienced athletes who have found a youthful energy in Beijing. With a silver in the downhill, France’s Johan Clarey, 41, became the oldest Olympic medalist in the history of Alpine skiing; 35-year-old Dutch speedskater Ireen Wust became the first athlete to earn individual gold medals at five Games by winning the 1,500 meters in Olympic record time; and Germany’s Johannes Ludwig won his first Olympic singles luge gold at 35.
Here’s where it’s important to point out that “old,” in this sense, is relative to the fact that snowboard cross is a high-speed mix between snowboarding and motocross racing associated mostly with young thrill-seekers and not, as Jacobellis pointed out, “seasoned” athletes who prefer 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night. Those in their late 30s and 40s don’t traditionally compete in a sport that wrecks, among other things, knees, necks, backs and occasionally work-life balance.
But in Beijing, Jacobellis and Baumgartner are doing what riders do best. Snowboarding in its more traditional iterations is all about progression, riders pushing each other to perform tricks with more rotations and higher amplitudes for no other reason than to see if they can.
Instead of testing the limits of what snowboarders can do, Baumgartner and Jacobellis are pushing the limits of who snowboarders can be.
“You’re never too late to take what you want from life and follow your dreams,” Baumgartner said. “You let yourself down if you quit too early.”
They were paired together Saturday having been U.S. teammates for 17 years, all of Baumgartner’s national team career and three years into Jacobellis’s, with a familial bond sprouting naturally.
When Jacobellis first dipped a toe back into snowboarding after a knee surgery, “going as slow as I can, like on the beginner hill,” Baumgartner was there filming and screaming with joy at a decibel not usually heard on the beginner hill. When Jacobellis wrote a children’s book about her Olympic experience, Baumgartner found it to be the perfect reading material for when his many teacher friends back home in Michigan asked him to talk to their classes.
“We are like a family,” Jacobellis said. “We know the hard times, and we know how to pick each other up, and we can have empathy for those times when everything’s hard.”
They also share the key ingredient that made them gold medalists Saturday: experience. Two decades in a sport with nary a gold medal to show for it — before Wednesday, at least — made them both savvy and hungry to win.
Snowboard cross is unpredictable, made slightly easier by years of racing in every condition imaginable — thick snow fell throughout the event Saturday, making the course slower. Cloud cover made the course deceptively flat, leading the U.S. team to alter its game plan mid-event.
“It’s so hard to replicate the same scenario because there are so many uncontrolled variables that it really helps to have the years behind you,” Jacobellis said. “So you can make the best execution and call what you need to do in that moment because you have mere seconds, if less, to make a decision.”
“For me,” Baumgartner said, “it’s like you get hungrier, you want it more because you know there’s an expiration date and it’s coming. . . . As you get older, it’s tough to watch the young kids kind of take over and try to push you out of the sport. That hunger, it’s strong.”
Baumgartner, who pours concrete and works as a contractor in his non-Olympic life, barreled down the course perhaps seeking redemption after he was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the men’s snowboard cross Thursday.
In the mixed-team event, the men race first and then the women line up to start, with their starting gates dropping in accordance to how fast their partners finished the course. Baumgartner finished the men’s run 0.04 seconds ahead of Italy’s Omar Visintin, bellowing, “Woo! C’mon Lindsey!” when he finished. He gave the most decorated snowboard cross racer in history the head start she needed.
Jacobellis took it and ran, expertly reading the lines of the course to gain an inside track on turns. They bested the Italian pair of Visintin and Michela Moioli, who took silver, and the bronze medal Canadian team of Eliot Grondin — a fan of Baumgartner’s since he was 10 (which was just 10 years ago) — and Meryeta O’Dine.
When Jacobellis finished the race, Baumgartner was there to mob her. He soon gathered her in a hug-turned-fireman’s carry, laughing and shouting indiscriminately. Both riders were asked whether they could return to defend their title in four years.
“It’s obviously feasible,” Jacobellis said, gesturing around her. “It’s just I might want to try something else or go on a different path … right now, still having fun and just on the high from these last couple of days.”
Baumgartner has firmer plans for after these Olympics. He will return home to Michigan, hug his 17-year-old son and, in May, give the commencement speech at his son’s high school graduation.
Longer down the road, after he stops training for races on the weekends and he’s either finally pushed out by the younger generation or retires on his own, Baumgartner plans to join his brother’s contracting company in Colorado. He knows it will happen eventually; he’s prepared for that.
“Someday soon I'm not going to be able to compete at this level,” he said. “But until that day comes, I’m going to put the work in, and I’m going to rise to the occasion.”
Until then, he will muse on all snowboarding has given him: a long, happy career, a gold medal and his name in the Olympic history books alongside a lifelong friend: bib No. 5-1: Baumgartner, Nick, USA, 1981, and bib No. 5-2: Jacobellis, Lindsey, USA, 1985.
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