What makes Lindsey Jacobellis a true Olympian despite suffering more heartbreak in Games

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Down the hill she limped. Past the press conference where the medalists in women’s snowboard cross would talk about winning Olympic glory. Around the media center where keyboards clacked with fingers stretching for the number keys, to type 2006 again and again. Across a berm where she hobbled by dozens of flags and a set of Olympic rings. Back to the life where every turn does not stir reminders of the moment that defines her, for better and worse.

The worse comes from the replays of Lindsey Jacobellis, the greatest racer the sport has known, showboating over the penultimate jump at the Turin Games, tweaking her board with a method grab, crashing and smelting gold into silver. It comes from constant questions about it, still, from sentences like this talking about it. Only this isn’t that story. This is about how the fall by a 20-year-old Lindsey Jacobellis turned into the rise of a 32-year-old Lindsey Jacobellis. How it’s mettle, not medal, that makes an Olympian an Olympian.

The better is Friday, at Phoenix Snow Park’s snowboardcross course, where races look like snowed-over scenes from a Mad Max film. It is Jacobellis staring down her past and subjugating it, willing herself back to the scene of her worst professional moment and willingly re-traumatizing herself, not because of any firm belief that winning gold at the PyeongChang Games would invalidate the past but because she is driven by what can be and not what was. It is a fourth-place finish -- three-hundredths of a second behind the bronze medalist, less than half a second back of the gold medalist -- being enough even if those who see her as a punchline refuse to accept that.

“People jump in and they see this sport once every four years,” Jacobellis said. “So of course that’s how they define me. It’s not how you should be defined. There’s plenty other athletes that have never acquired that Olympic gold but still keep qualifying and still keep coming back.”

Lindsey Jacobellis, of the United States, finishes her run during the women’s snowboard quarterfinals at Phoenix Snow Park at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Every four years since Turin, where her blue eyes and blonde ringlets from Olympic-TV central casting set her up to be a star, Jacobellis has come back and run into disappointment, not coming close to the medal stand in Vancouver or Sochi. Her twice-repaired left knee throbbed Friday, her “ibuprofen diet” not nearly enough to palliate the effects of two decades of racing. She didn’t pull out because she couldn’t. Even if the world’s best racer, Michela Moioli, took gold and the silver went to Julia Pereira de Sousa Mabileau, who was 4 years old during the Turin Games, and Eva Samkova’s bronze came because she skidded across the finish line a fraction of a second earlier, the notion of an Olympic snowboard cross race without Jacobellis sounds wrong.

“When I tell people what I do, the first thing they say, ‘Is that the sport where the girl threw away the gold medal?’ ” American racer Faye Gulini said. “And I’m like, ‘At least you know what I do.’ They either know that or don’t know anything.”

Here’s something worth knowing about Jacobellis. When a 9-year-old girl named Meghan Tierney was watching the Turin Olympics in New Jersey, she was transfixed by snowboard cross, as is pretty much everyone that watches it. She started snowboarding a year after that, and about a year later, at Mount Hood in Oregon, she met Lindsey Jacobellis, who encouraged her to take up snowboard cross and later coached her.

Meghan Tierney, now 21, competed here Friday for the United States.

“Watching those [Turin] games really inspired me to want to get to the Olympics,” Tierney said. “It definitely had a huge impact on me.”

Jacobellis wants more girls to be like Tierney, to fall in love with the drama and daring and athleticism of snowboard cross. So for the last two years, she has worked to organize the Supergirl Snow Pro, an event set for March 17-18 in Big Bear Lake, California. It’s an all-female snowboard cross and halfpipe competition that encourages girls as young as 8 to enter. Gulini said she will be there, a nod to the respect Jacobellis engenders.

American Lindsey Jacobellis, who was leading in the final of the Women’s Snowboard Cross competition, crashes in sight of the finish at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games. (AP file photo)

“People have asked over the years, and people constantly ask, ‘Do you feel bad for her? Don’t you think she deserves it? She’s one of the most decorated athletes in your sport,’ ” Gulini said. “And I feel like she’s done incredible for herself. And there’s a lot of athletes that their results don’t measure up to who they are. I would never say I feel bad for her in any moment. She’s done incredible. She’s the best at this sport. She makes more money than anyone. She’s the golden girl. She made one mistake, and it sometimes haunts her, but I think we’re far enough out that it’s rare that it even really gets brought up – until the Olympics. I think she’s doing just fine despite that mistake.”

It is like a scar, faded but always there, the product of youthful foolishness. What makes it so benign is that it harmed nobody but Jacobellis, and yet because the world saw it and because YouTube exists and because the incredible accomplishments of athletes supersizes their failures, it endures and cannot help but weave itself into the present.

Jacobellis raced to a strong start Friday, leading for more than half the finals until Moioli passed her on a jump. She faded back to third, then fourth, then fifth. And as she soared over the final jump, she noticed France’s Chloé Trespeuch crashing beneath her. Slight maneuvering around that might have cost Jacobellis a bronze, though it helped her avoid the prospect of another shredded ACL.

And that’s important, seeing as Jacobellis wants to keep doing this, keep at a sport she loves enough to come back to the Olympics every four years, stare right at her history and not blink. As she walked away from the snowboard cross course, smarter and stronger and better than she was a dozen years ago, nobody stopped her, acknowledged her, bothered her. Along she walked, not the notorious silver medalist, not the infamous hot dogger, but Lindsey Jacobellis, the Olympian who saw worse and chose better.

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