Fifteen years after making one of the worst mistakes an athlete can make while competing, Lindsey Jacobellis’ Olympic journey came full circle. She crossed the finish line first in the women’s snowboard cross on Wednesday, winning not only her first gold medal, but also the first gold medal for Team USA at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The year was 2006 and Jacobellis was the world champion. She had her whole family in Torino and was favored to win gold. In a sport that can include crashes at nearly every turn, Jacobellis’ eventual wreck was preventable.
The then 20-year-old had a difficult starting position. She managed to ride a low line to avoid contact that took out two of her fellow competitors almost immediately.
As the race continued, more of her competitors crashed and Jacobellis’ lead grew. In every camera angle she was all alone – almost 50 yards ahead. It was virtually an insurmountable lead in snowboard cross, or so everyone thought.
On the second-to-last jump, Jacobellis went down on a part of the course that no one had fallen at previously. It wasn’t because of an equipment malfunction or something easily explainable, but rather something immensely worse – showboating. It was the worst rookie mistake that could have transpired. Jacobellis attempted a back-side method trick and went to grab her board. The grab went OK, but after making contact with the ground, Lindsey found herself too far on her back edge, and then on the ground.
Switzerland’s Tanja Frieden took advantage. Headlines would say “Switzerland’s Frieden steals gold,” but in reality, Jacobellis was lucky she secured a medal of any color. The snowboarder was just inches from missing the gate and disqualifying herself.
After the race, Jacobellis stood stunned at the bottom of the hill. She was seen shrugging her shoulders as Frieden couldn’t contain her delight.
Immediately following the race, Jacobellis further made things worse by bending the truth about the jump and her attempt to add a trick.
"I'd been having trouble with that jump all day," Jacobellis said. "The wind has just been catching me weird, and I tried all sorts of grabs to see which one would work to stabilize me in the air, but it just didn't work."
Jacobellis was asked ceaselessly about the fall. No matter how many times she was asked, the answer remained the same and lacked culpability. The Connecticut native doubled down, claiming the move had been for balance and not to showboat. "It's not like a freestyle jump where you're trying to create style, you're just trying to create stability," she added.
No one was buying it. Frieden’s account of the jump directly contradicted Jacobellis’ claims and confirmed what everyone else already knew.
"I didn't have any problems with that jump," Frieden said. "They were not that big. We always have bigger jumps. I felt fine on them."
Ultimately, Jacobellis tried to right the wrong, coming clean in a conference call with the reporters.
"I was caught up in the moment. I think every now and then you might see something like that," Jacobellis said during a conference call after the event. "I didn't even think twice. I was having fun and that's what snowboarding is. I was ahead. I wanted to share with the crowd my enthusiasm. I messed up. It happens."
In the moment, and even 15 years later, some don’t blame Jacobellis. She was just 20, and seemed even younger as the wide-eyed girl donning pigtails. At the time, she didn’t have the maturity and experience her fellow competitors did. The quote that perhaps stands out the most from that day came from Frieden.
"This is boardercross, I've learned it's never finished until it's finished."
Close, but no cigar
There’s no denying Jacobellis' 2006 stunt is known as one of the worst Olympic and sports blunders of all time. But, if there was anything lucky about that day, it was the fact that Jacobellis was only 20, meaning she could return for redemption.
Redemption doesn’t come easily and isn’t anything but guaranteed. In 2010, Lindsey returned, and was again one of the best in the sport. She had won the gold medal in snowboard cross at the last three Winter X Games.
This time she didn’t even make it to the final. She landed a jump poorly early in the course, and swerved through a gate to avoid crashing into another rider, which automatically disqualified her. She wound up fifth overall at the 2010 Games.
Jacobellis again returned to the Olympics for the 2014 Games. She again made it to the semifinal stage, where she crashed once more. She competed in the small final, the final no one wants to be in. But she proved her maturity, stayed focused and won the small final. She finished seventh overall in Sochi.
Heading into PyeongChang, Jacobellis was having some of the same success as earlier in her career. She had won the 2017 World Championship in addition to having a strong showing on the tour that year.
PyeongChang marked her fourth Olympics, an impressive accomplishment in and of itself. Jacobellis was 32 in 2018, relatively old in a young-person’s sport. But 12 years after her showboating mistake, Jacobellis’ age and perspective brought her peace at the Games.
The snowboarder had a relatively problem-free Olympics leading up to the final race, something she needed after crashing the previous two times. She again found herself in the lead during a final. However, it wasn’t meant to be. She crossed the finish line just .003 seconds behind bronze medalist Eva Samkova, missing the podium altogether by the smallest of margins. Perhaps, a 'Jacobellis wins gold' redemption story just wasn’t in the cards.
Immediately after the race, a smiling Lindsey spoke to NBC, “I’m still in the mix, defining the sport and pushing the level of it and continuing to grow with it. I don’t plan to stop anytime soon.”
She later told reporters, “I mean, I could be upset about it, but where is that going to get me? Anything can happen in boarder cross, and I didn’t get injured today. I’ve been dealing with past injuries flaring up on me. The fact I’m still walking out of here is great.”
At 36, this very well could be her last Olympics -- her last chance to win that elusive gold medal.
It’s not that Lindsey doesn’t have gold medals. She’s won five individual world titles and compiled 10 Winter X Games wins, a résumé no one else can compete with. But the Olympics had been her kryptonite.
Lindsey’s preliminary races at the 2022 Winter Games went off without a hitch and she again found herself in the big final. Before the start, a fidgety Jacobellis found herself staring down the course, or perhaps it was her past. This time around, age (maturity) and experience was on her side, and she led and controlled almost the entire race. It was a relatively uneventful final, and if you had a chance to ask her ahead of time, that’s probably exactly what she would have preferred. She neared the finish ahead of her competitors, stayed low and composed over the final jump and cruised across the line in first – capturing the gold medal that has eluded her for the last 16 years.
After the race, she spoke with NBC’s Hailey Hunter declaring, “I felt like I was already a winner by just making it to the final, it’s been a long road of ups-and-downs.” She added, “I knew if I could get out ahead, I’d stay ahead. I wasn’t trying to battle the past.”
In her fifth Olympics, her experience is what made the difference. “I was just trying to take one heat at a time, and it’s just unreal to me.”
History in the making
The gold-medal finish was significant for more reasons than just for Jacobellis personally, as it was the first gold medal for the United States at the 2022 Winter Olympics. She also became the oldest American woman to win a winter Olympic medal of any color in any sport, and the oldest snowboarding medalist ever, breaking a record that was just set by Austria’s Benjamin Karl in the parallel giant slalom earlier these Games.
Even though Jacobellis made history with her gold medal, it's not what she’s most proud of. She has long been an ambassador for women’s snowboard cross and even in the jubilation of winning gold, she made sure to note, “I’ve been really excited to be developing this sport, to be with it, and keep pushing myself.”
Whether or not this is it for the 36-year-old remains to be seen, but Jacobellis can definitely sleep peacefully knowing she finally captured her elusive gold medal at the Winter Olympics.