PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The most accomplished snowboardcross rider in history knows the question is coming. Because the question comes every four years.
No matter how many races she wins. No matter how many world championships she picks up. No matter what she’s done to grow the sport she’s helped define for more than a decade.
So Lindsey Jacobellis sets her jaw and steels herself every time the Olympics roll around, well aware that for some she’ll never outrun a three-second error in judgment in Turin as a 20-year-old, when gold somehow morphed into silver when her attempt to add a little bit of sauce to her winning run ended up with her ever-so-briefly sitting down in the Italian Alps.
So go ahead. Ask the question. You can let a bout of youthful exuberance define her in your mind. She’s long since let it go. She’s in Korea to talk about the future. Not the past.
“I don’t look back at all,” said Jacobellis, who will make a fourth bid for Olympic gold in women’s snowboardcross on Friday. “Right now I’m here. What year is it? It’s 2018. We’re in Pyeongchang and I’m focusing on that.”
Even if the public at large can’t. She is by every metric “the GOAT” (slang for the Greatest of All Time). Five world championships. Nine X Games wins. More than two dozen World Cup victories. A staggering 49 podium finishes in a discipline her good friend and American teammate Jonathan Cheever says is only fit for masochists because of its pure unpredictability.
Snowboardcross requires a mix of daring, athleticism and intelligence and sometimes even that’s not enough. Failure is always one dip, one elbow, one split-second poor choice away as you careen down the side of a mountain over a series of jumps, bumps and dips with a handful of riders often within arm’s reach.
Yet for half her life the 32-year-old Jacobellis has been the closest thing to a sure thing. Not that you’d know it if you only stopped by during the Olympics, when the focus isn’t on all those victories but on the one she let slip away.
A quick review. Jacobellis was well in front of Switzerland’s Tanja Frieden in the Big Final in Turin in 2006 when she decided to do a “Method ,” kicking her legs out in front of her, grabbing the board in the process. She mistimed the landing, her legs straightening out too early, forcing her to temporarily lose her edge. By the time she was back on her feet, gold had turned to silver and Jacobellis found herself low-hanging fruit for those eager to chastise her for what they considered just another showboating move by someone who put style over substance.
It was three seconds in a lifetime. Three. Three that pop up every time she straps on her board with the Olympic rings in the background. Maybe victory this time around will let others move on from a moment she’s long put in the rearview mirror. Maybe.
“I can’t really get mad at those people that chime in every four years and don’t really understand our sport and the development and how hard we work,” she said. “People don’t (think) that snowboarders work out as hard or we mess around and we’re just having fun. We have a job that is year round and we work that hard constantly and every day to make our bodies take the impacts that we take or work through the injuries or protect ourselves from the injuries.”
Not even for Jacobellis. A torn ACL in 2012 forced her to start from scratch and re-examine if she wanted to keep doing this. She did, but with a few caveats: she needed to be able to get away. So she started spending time in Southern California, eventually buying a place in Laguna Niguel, where she spends time surfing when she’s not making runs to Home Depot to fix up her house.
While the ultimate Olympic success has eluded her - she failed to reach the finals in either Vancouver or Sochi - it has also not deterred her. Feel free to judge her by that one time she did that one thing. She’s over it. Regardless of what happens on Friday, Jacobellis will head back to California to co-host a Pro-Am event designed to showcase younger riders. She’s passionate about assuring snowboardcross is in good hands whenever she decides to move on.
Funny. Cheever wonders if that would be the case had she won in Turin.
“If she’d gotten gold in ‘06, maybe she would have retired by now,” he said. “She brings so much to the team and the sport that is different.”
Maybe her fourth Games will provide catharsis. Maybe it won’t. Jacobellis doesn’t need to prove anything to herself or the close-knit community that understands she’s far more than those three seconds all those years ago.
“She’s the best snowboardcrosser that ever lived,” said teammate Nick Baumgartner. “There’s no shame in that.”
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