American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis relives Olympic nightmare, falls again

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Poor, poor Lindsey Jacobellis laid in a pile of snow, a pile of regret, and stared at the sky. It was empty. The sun shone down on her, reminding her that this was real. By the time she stood up on her snowboard, she wanted to curse her luck and her sport and everything. Cursing would do no good. It happened again.

The first time was awful. On the final jump of the snowboardcross race in the Turin Games, she grabbed her board as a nod to her fans and friends, like she had a billion times, and fell. Gold turned to silver. Glory turned to humiliation. She was 20. Kids do stupid things. Not many find that stupid thing as a descriptive term forever attached to them: "Lindsey Jacobellis, whose hotdogging at the 2006 Olympics cost her a gold medal…"

The second time was brutal. The jumps and bumps of snowboardcross ate her up, catapulted her into a fence and left her without a medal at the Vancouver Games. She was 24. Through the hurt and regret, she knew there would be another shot.

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The third time was cruel, the sort of sporting cruelty nobody deserves. The kind that takes the best rider in the world — that would be Jacobellis — and stakes her to a big lead in her semifinal race. The type that goads her into thinking she's going to complete that comeback from two ACL surgeries with an Olympic gold medal, finally. The one that then yanks the board out from underneath her Sunday near the finish at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park and sends her straight to the athletic pantheon reserved for the star-crossed: Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, Ted Williams and Ernie Banks, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing. The place where no athlete wants to end up.

So much work and so much ability and so many accomplishments everywhere else in her small niche of snowboard racing, and all of it lost at this one event, as though her Olympics are cursed. She knows that's not true, of course, that the real hex is the inherent randomness of sports and how they don't discriminate in dishing out pain.

"I try to treat this event like every other," Jacobellis said. "It just so happens, how the wheel turns, I win every other event, and it comes around to the one I don't win, and it happens to be this one."

Of all the events in which to flame out, of course, Jacobellis is saddled with hers being the one everyone watches. She has enough X Games gold medals and world championships to fill a room. Her Olympics silver remains lonely, buffeted only by disappointment.

"People don't understand how much pressure is put on her," said teammate Faye Gulini, who finished fourth Sunday. "And it breaks my heart because I think it takes the fun out of it for her. Just for this event. She loves the sport. She's a phenomenal snowboarder. But it's in her head. You know? With that much pressure on you — I've never had that kind of pressure on me, but I know it just breaks her as an athlete and makes it hard for her to do her best."

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Jacobellis copped to none of that. Even if it's true, she deserved to wear whatever face she desired. Brave. Saddened. Incredulous. All of them together, perfectly encapsulating an immature girl's evolution into a woman with the sort of perspective necessary to revisit her ache.

"There's worse things in life than not winning," Jacobellis said. "A lot worse. And of course it's very unfortunate that this didn't work out for me. I've trained very hard for this moment. It just doesn't come together for whoever knows what reason."

By now, Jacobellis knows better than to assign any sort of blame to such things. She crushed her qualifying run, finishing second behind only eventual gold medalist Eva Samkova. In the quarterfinals, she smoked the other four trying to keep pace and stood one race from a showdown with Samkova. And Jacobellis was doing the same in the semifinals until the speed of the course left her with an in-between jump over a pair bumps in the course.

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Her board dug into the snow, slowing down any momentum, and as much as Jacobellis tried to avoid a fall, her body refused to comply. Down she went, and the crowd at the bottom of the Extreme Park gasped. No. Not her. Not here. Not again.

All of the schadenfreude from 2006 seemed to have vanished and yielded to an emotion far more powerful: empathy. Everyone in the stands had fallen doing something they loved, had failed at an important moment in their lives, had known the stomach-turning agony of loving something and watching it not love you back. It is the worst. The worst.

"She deserves a gold medal," Gulini said. "She's put in the time. She's put in the hours. She's talented. She's got it."

She does. Nobody denies that. In fact, it's impossible to look at Jacobellis and not call her something of a sporting wonder. Lesser failures have torpedoed athletic careers. She had one of the most embarrassing meltdowns possible, and not only did she remain elite in her sport, she improved.

The Turin fall defines her, though not in the way most would think. Her return from it speaks to all of the mettle and strength that constitute Jacobellis. Twice now she has gone back to the place of her greatest disappointment, confronted it, found regret again and not let it beat her. There's great bravery in that.

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Soon after the crash, Jacobellis was summoned back to the top of the course to run the Small Final, a consolation race. The winner would lock up seventh place and watch the racers in the real finale zoom down the course. Jacobellis wanted to be in the real race. The Small Final's name fit her feelings about it.

"At that point," Jacobellis said, "you don't even want to try."

Her start was slow, and she lagged behind two racers about halfway through. Then something happened. Lindsey Jacobellis's instincts kicked in. This was a race. She was a racer. It didn't matter whether it was big or small. She made a daring pass on the inside corner of a turn, stole the lead and never relinquished it.

And she crossed the finish line in first, right where she belonged, where come 2018 she may again be, only in the true final. When asked about the Pyeongchang Games, Jacobellis left open the possibility of competing. She'll be 32 then. The silver medalist here, Dominique Maltais, is 33, so it's not far-fetched.

This hurt will last, yes, though by now everyone knows she can handle it. And that leaves only one question: Can she take the rest of what it will entail? The questions about '06 that never will go away, and the ones about '10 and '14 that will join them. The emptiness of a potential repeat. The chance that her luck will be as bad in 2018 as it was Feb. 16, 2010, and 2014.

She can. And she should. Poor, poor Lindsey Jacobellis owes herself that much.