ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Lindsey Jacobellis has spent the past 16 years living with one of the worst mistakes in Olympic history. Wednesday afternoon, at long last, she got redemption in the best possible way.
Back in 2006, while riding in the inaugural snowboard cross event, Jacobellis was leading by a comfortable margin. Gold wasn’t just within sight or within reach, the ribbon was halfway over her head. She had just one jump left to do, and the gold medal would be hers.
You may remember what happened next. Jacobellis tried to get a little fancy, showing off, and it bit her. Hard. She fell, and Switzerland’s Tanja Frieden scooted around her and claimed the gold for herself.
Wednesday, Jacobellis once again found herself in the lead for the final turns of a snowboard cross race, but this time, no stunts, no showboating, nothing but a fast, relentless race that ended in gold … the first gold for the United States in this particular Olympics.
Jacobellis spent the last decade and a half as a cautionary tale, a warning not to ever let up before you cross the finish line. She took unfair grief from all sides, critics saying she got what she deserved for turning the Olympics into a me-first performance … as if the perpetual, every-single-day pain of losing gold alone wasn’t enough.
As the years wore on, Jacobellis remained at the top of her game … but not quite at the top of her sport. She kept returning to the Olympics, year after year, each time falling short of a medal. Fifth in Vancouver. Seventh in Sochi. Fourth in PyeongChang. Always close enough to see the podium, never close enough after Turin to stand on it.
Until now. Jacobellis survived a brutal seeding and qualification process that sorted out 32 competitors, round by round, four at a time, until she reached the final. There, she outdistanced France’s Chloe Trespeuch (silver), Canada’s Meryta Odine (bronze) and Australia’s Belle Brockhoff (fourth place).
Jacobellis swatted away any thought that this gold was some sort of redemption for the mistake in 2006. “I wanted to just come here and compete,” she said. “It would have been a nice, sweet thing, but I think if I had tried to (focus on) the thought of redemption, then it's taking away focus on the task at hand, and that's not why I race.”
It’s tough to say 2006 was any kind of blessing, but Jacobellis notes that if her run hadn’t turned sour, “I probably would have quit the sport at that point because I wasn't really having fun with it,” she said. "There was so much pressure on me to be the golden girl. I'd won so many races going into it and it's a lot for a young athlete to have on their plate. That's definitely something that the media doesn't always understand and you don't realize how young some of these athletes are."
Not only is the medal sweet redemption for years of pain, it’s also a testament to Jacobellis’ longevity. At 36, she's now the oldest female medalist in Winter Olympics history for Team USA. If her 2006 Games were a lesson in finishing the race, 2022 is an object lesson in persistence in pursuit of a dream, no matter how long it takes.