KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The question about concussions came from a foreign journalist and seemed innocent enough. It surely wasn’t intended to be humorous, yet all the snowboarders on the dais chuckled. Lindsey Jacobellis, a three-time Olympian, explained why: “I’m pretty sure everyone at this table has had a concussion.”
“I’ve gotten a concussion this year,” noted Nick Baumgartner, 32. “I actually was knocked out for the first time in my life, where I was out for a couple of minutes.”
“I’m 20 years old,” said Trevor Jacob, “and I’ve had – we’ve counted over 25 concussions.”
To be fair, the vast majority of Jacob’s head injuries have come doing thrill-seeking stunts, he says, not necessarily his chosen Olympic sport, the rough-and-tumble snowboard cross. But all the competitors know the inherent risks, which are ramped up at these Winter Games with rule changes that add even more bodies on the confined race course.
Snowboard cross made its debut at the 2006 Games, and for the uninitiated, picture roller derby on snow, where the mishaps are both incidental and inevitable. Unlike snowboard events like the halfpipe and slopestyle, there are no judges. The winner is the first to the bottom of the hill.
Unlike the past two Winter Olympics, this year’s event will include six snowboarders in each heat, up from four in Vancouver and Turin, all battling for position, navigating the twists and turns of fast, cramped course. The larger field increases the likelihood of bumps and spills.
“I think it is more dangerous,” said Baumgartner, a Michigan native making his second Olympic appearance. “It’s more exiting. It changes it. Anything can happen. It’s totally unpredictable when you’re going down the course.”
Baumgartner says the added danger is hardly a drawback, and the two extra riders make it much more difficult to predict who might survive the heats to reach the medals podium. The women’s event is scheduled to begin Sunday morning at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park; the men hit the course one day later.
Veteran rider Nate Holland says he’ll rely on experience to wind through the crowded field. The 35-year-old is a seven-time Winter X Games gold medalist. He appearing in his third Olympics and knows it could very well be his last. He came to Sochi eager to erase the memory of the Vancouver Games, where a fourth-place finish still gnaws at him.
Mountains of the Olympics
It’s motivated Holland through the past four years of training. On tough days when he feels drawn to the couch instead of the gym, he remembers standing at the bottom of the hill where race officials asked him to step aside because the medal ceremony was about to begin.
“An Olympic medal has been the goal of mine since 2004, when I heard that boardercross was going to be in the Olympics. That’s 10 years that I haven’t been able to achieve that goal,” he said.
“I’m still not over Vancouver,” he added. “That’s a feeling that I think until I’m able to medal, that pit in my stomach will sit there.”
On the other end of the age spectrum is 20-year old Jacob, one-time halfpipe phenom who got burnt out and walked away from the sport entirely. He focused instead on dirt bikes, skateboards, surfing, skydiving and anything else that would provide a jolt of adrenaline. He joined Travis Pastrana, the motocross legend, and his Nitro Circus crew to perform a series of high-flying, life-threatening stunts, the kind that raise insurance premiums. (In one memorable YouTube video, on a snowboard, Jacob jumps over a moving train.)
After a two-year hiatus from competitive snowboarding, Jacob returned early last year, opting for snowboard cross instead of the halfpipe, which he likens to gymnastics with rehearsed routines and results dependent on the discretion of judges. In snowboard cross, with a start, a finish and uncertainty in between, Jacob rides for the rush.
The possibility of injury only fuels him. He insists he wasn’t exaggerating about those 25 concussions.
“But yeah, whatever,” he said. “It comes with our lifestyle. If you don’t accept it, you’re kind of doing the wrong thing.”