ZHANGJIAKOU, China -- When bad things happen at the Olympics, no one ever lets it go.
Nobody’s learned that lesson the hard way more than Lindsey Jacobellis.
A full 16 years and a world removed from the day the American snowboardcross racer gave away the gold medal with a showboat move near the finish line, Jacobellis rode hard to the end and won it.
Instead of a blank stare and a look of shocked disbelief after taking silver in Italy, Jacobellis clenched her fists and pumped them to celebrate gold in China. She smiled wide and placed her hands over her heart. The victory Wednesday marked a remarkable climb back up an Olympic mountain that Jacobellis, now 36 and a seasoned veteran in this game, had every reason to detest.
Or leave behind.
“Some days, I really don’t like it,” she said. “Some days, it’s very stressful and aggravating and there's anxiety through the roof. But when it all comes all together, it really makes it worth it.”
It only felt fitting that Jacobellis, a five-time Olympian who has been humbled aplenty at the Games, made a breakthrough for a U.S. team that, until she showed up, could not seem to get anything right. Hours before her win, over on the Alpine course, Mikaela Shiffrin skidded out in the slalom to make her 0 for 2 at the Olympics. That opened the door for Jacobellis to flip the script and make some history, too.
She won America's first gold medal of the Beijing Olympics. She became the oldest U.S. woman to win a gold in Winter Games history. Also, the 16 years marked the longest gap between medals for any U.S. woman at the Winter Olympics.
Shiffrin's struggles aren't the only troubles the U.S. has had. Earlier in the week, two defending snowboard champions, Red Gerard and Jamie Anderson, failed to medal in slopestyle. Anderson took to social media and conceded her “mental health and clarity just hasn't been on par.”
Jacobellis made her mistake when she was 20, back in a time when the mental health of Olympians wasn't much on the minds of media or anyone in the sports space.
On that day in Italy, she was far in the clear in the gold-medal race, but she bent her legs up and grabbed her board and gave a flashy little twist toward the grandstand. A method grab. It was a showy move saved for winning runs in a game where style trumps almost everything.
But Jacobellis fell.
A hot-dogger and a showoff, some critics labeled her. Got what she deserved, others said.
The woman who had come into those Olympics as the quintessential star-in-the-making left as something else. Every four years when the Games returned, the story was reheated and retold. Jacobellis made one final over those three Olympics. Never got back on the podium.
“I so vividly remember her little method off the jump and watching that gold medal slip out her fingers,” Aussie rider Belle Brockhoff said. "She’s copped so much (expletive) from the media and everything. For her to keep coming at it and not giving up is pretty inspirational.”
The Olympics are only a small part of the game for snowboard racers. Since 2007, Jacobellis has amassed 23 World Cup victories and 45 podiums and has become a towering presence in her sport. Not surprisingly, this was a popular victory with the riders.
“She was already an example when I was young,” said the silver medalist, 27-year-old Chloe Trespeuch of France. “I’m so happy for her. Even if my goal was also the gold, she really deserved it. She has been here for a very long time.”
In snowboardcross, riders race in packs of four down 15 football fields' worth of curves, “rollers” and jumps. Speed is important. Strategy and patience come in handy, too. In her final two races, Jacobellis got out to an early lead and held it — easier said than done in a sport where riders use the contours of the course to changes speeds and slingshot past the leaders.
Jacobellis approached the final jump — where things unraveled in Italy — crouched low to the ground and racing hard all the way. She stayed in her crouch past the finish line. She was not thinking about Turin.
“I definitely have put 2006 in the past,” Jacobellis said. “And I've done a lot of soul searching to realize that that one doesn't define me as an athlete.”
So, instead of the “Lindsey Leap,” Jacobellis might now be known for hanging in there long enough to rewrite her story. It is now the story of a great comeback.
One lesson she wants athletes younger than her to take from her experience is "if you’ve made it to this stage, you’re a winner. And look at what you’ve learned from the experience, and take that with you later in life.”
And what should the rest of the world take from a tale like hers?
“Don't count the old girl out,” she said.
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