I really want to feel sorry for Lindsey Jacobellis this morning. Most of you probably don’t know who she is unless you are watching a lot more of The Winter Olympics than I am.
So here’s a little background: Four years ago when snowboarding was introduced as an Olympic sport, Jacobellis had a chance to become a star—at least in the way most Winter Olympians become stars. She wasn’t going to be Shaun White, who I guess has become some kind of snowboarding icon or Lindsey Vonn, who has yet to win an Olympic medal but is now being treated by the American media as if she’s Peyton Manning with a sprained ankle on the eve of The Super Bowl.
Update: Lindsey stepped in and out of the shower this morning pain free. Her husband, the ever-present Thomas Vonn, reports that if the women’s downhill is delayed until June—as now seems likely—Lindsey should be ready to ski pain free. Unless she’s not. More in about 15 minutes.
Four years ago in Turin, Jacobellis was leading an event called the snowboard cross, which is, essentially, a race down the mountain on snowboards with various gates and jumps along the way. Watching it can be very entertaining and there’s no doubting the remarkable skill of the competitors. She was cruising in the four-woman final when she came to the last jump. Whether out of excitement or ebullience or cockiness, she came out of the jump and did what other boarders (they’re not skiers right?) described as a hot-dog move, leaning forward to grab the front of her board as she came off the jump.
If you’re out for a romp on a mountain and you’re good, there’s nothing wrong with such a move. When you are competing for an Olympic Gold Medal, it probably isn’t such a good idea because it’s not easy to do and, well, the goal at that moment is to get to the finish line, not look cool. If you want to really look cool you stand on a medal stand with gold around your neck and hear your national anthem played. Now THAT’s cool.
Jacobellis fell. By the time she scrambled to her feet the only remaining boarder who hadn’t fallen yet, Tanja Frieden, whooshed by her. Since no one else was following her, Jacobellis got up, stumbled across the finish line and won the silver medal.
Look, an Olympic silver medal is an amazing accomplishment. I’ve had the chance to HOLD Olympic medals won by others and that’s as close as I’ll ever come to an Olympic medal. I would be thrilled right now to win a medal in a Masters swimming meet. But when you are the best in the world at an Olympic sport and all you have to do is not screw around for another five seconds and you opt to screw around and you turn gold into silver, that’s just foolish.
What Jacobellis did was the competitive equivalent of Michael Phelps thinking his lead in the 200 freestyle at the Beijing Olympics was so huge (which it was) that he could flip on his back and backstroke to the wall. Except he miscalculated and someone passed him on the last stroke.
Jacobellis—and a lot of snowboarders—didn’t see it that way. Her reaction was, basically, “whatever, it happens. I was having fun.”
Old people like me weren’t so much horrified as stunned. You train like crazy in a sport where the only event anyone but friends and family care about is the Olympics and decide to “have fun,” a few yards from a gold medal? The flip side were people who said, “hey, the snowboarders and X-games types were brought in to breathe new life into the Games. This is what you get.”
Okay, we’re all different. And, since all Olympic athletes are pros nowadays, Jacobellis would—barring injury—get another shot in four years. Well, her shot came on Tuesday. She didn’t make the final. On what was apparently a slushy and difficult course, she boarded (is that what you say?) off the course during the semifinals, missing a gate. That disqualified her.
Here’s where I have trouble feeling sorry for her—which I want to do, the way I feel for Tod Lodwick, the Nordic skier who JUST missed a medal on Sunday in the Nordic combined, finishing in fourth place in his fifth and almost certainly last Olympics. There’s nothing worse than finishing fourth in the Olympics. It’s much worse than finishing second. You “win,” silver. No one ever says you “win,” fourth. Lodwick’s got one more shot in the relay next Tuesday. I, for one, will be pulling for him and the American team big-time.
Jacobellis has apparently been complaining about the condition of the course all week. She’s apparently not wrong but, last I looked, everyone was boarding on the same course. Then, Tuesday, after her flame-out she walked past reporters in what’s called the “mixed zone,” which is where reporters can lean over a barrier and try to talk to the athletes as they walk by—if the athletes decide to and stop and talk. To this day, working a “mixed zone,” may be the most humiliating thing I’ve done as a reporter. Jacobellis just kept going when reporters tried to get her to stop and talk.
Whatever happened to, “I’m just having fun,” or “it happens?” Maybe it’s a good sign that she was upset about her performance. Maybe she figured out that the Olympics are, in fact, a competition. Or maybe she’s another spoiled athlete who can go stand in line with most of the world’s tennis players.
Either way, it’s too bad. As I said last week, what I like about the Winter Olympics is that most of the athletes aren’t hyper-marketed stars who we learn to dislike almost as soon as we get to know them a little. (Figure skaters, of course, are the exception. We’ll go back to the figure-skating competition in a minute, but first we have another update from Thomas Vonn: Lindsey ate breakfast with no visible discomfort. She’s planning to eat lunch. We aren’t ready to commit to dinner yet. More to come after Bob Costas introduces the next four hours of figure skating).
Lindsey Jacobellis had one chance to win a gold medal and blew it. She got a second chance and was unlucky. The first time around she shrugged it off. This time she was clearly upset.
Maybe that’s progress. Maybe she’ll get another chance in four years. Or maybe she’ll spend the rest of her life staring at that silver medal and saying to herself, “what was I thinking?”