- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 20, 2010

TELLURIDE, Colo. | To the snowboardcross and X-Games world in which she resides, she is Lindsey Jacobellis, the most dominant figure in her sport, a multiple champion at almost every level.

To the rest of the world — the world that pays attention to these things every four years at the Olympics — she is that girl who lost the gold medal when she was trying to show off.

Jacobellis has, she insists, put that ill-timed embarrassment from the 2006 snowboardcross final behind her, admitted the “method grab” and the ensuing tumble she took because of it — when she was in the lead, far ahead of everyone — was a mistake.

But the 24-year-old Vermonter, whose Olympic silver looks a bit odd mixed in there with all those other gold medals, knows there’s only one way to get that off people’s minds: By closing the deal when the world is watching in Vancouver next month.

“It definitely was a mistake,” Jacobellis said, an admission that didn’t come so easily in the immediate aftermath of the gaffe. “It was a ‘Whoops, Oh, dear. I don’t know what happened.’ But you learn from mistakes and all you can do is grow. If you just stop there and be sour about it, it doesn’t show that you’re a true athlete who craves the next race.”

Only a true athlete could get to where Jacobellis has gone in a sport that is as much about avoiding the next injury as winning the next race.

Snowboardcross is a tangled crap shoot consisting of four riders going down a steep hill with curves and jumps at speeds of up to 30 mph. It’s about position as much as speed — about finding quick pathways out of trouble as much as staying upright when the trouble finally hits. It is popularly thought of as NASCAR on snow.

Jacobellis has maneuvered her way through all that over nearly a decade in the sport, winning five Winter X-Games titles, 19 World Cup races and two world snowboarding championships.

She was the rider to beat heading into the finals on the hill in Bardonecchia that overcast day in 2006.

The cruelest irony was that her defining moment came not when most of them do in snowboardcross — during some ugly, unpredictable multi-person wreck that sends riders crashing through the netting and onto YouTube — but when she was all alone, in the clear, with nobody in sight behind her and her parents already celebrating in the stands.

Then, she fell.

Tanya Frieden caught up and passed her.

Jacobellis gathered herself in time to salvage the silver. Even in the counterculture world of snowboarding, where winning isn’t always the only thing, hardly anyone could believe it.

“At the moment I saw it, I’m thinking, ‘Holy smokes. We’ve seen one of our competitors lose a gold,” said Bill Marolt, the CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “She was able to pick it up and win the silver. I don’t think there was any intent on her part to minimize the Olympics or the opportunity. It’s a sport based on being creative and being emotional, being spontaneous, and I think that will continue to be part of it.”

In the immediate aftermath, Jacobellis said there was nothing abnormal about her “method grab” — that quick, celebratory and ultimately unlucky grab of her snowboard on the second-to-last jump — that she was simply grabbing the board to gain some stability.

But after some time to think about it — and after being called out by some coaches and fellow snowboarders — she conceded she had tweaked that one too hard and was showing off a bit.

Four years later, the debate still lingers.

Fellow American and Olympic gold medalist Seth Wescott said sometimes a rider will grab the board to give himself something else to focus on instead of the hard impact after a jump, especially on a course where the landings are particularly flat and jarring.

“She hadn’t won it yet, she hadn’t crossed the finish line, she made a mistake,” Wescott said. “But it didn’t necessarily come because she put her hand on the board. A lot of people will do that. She just got off balance before she landed.”

The general reaction, especially from the mainstream media that delves deeply into snowboarding only every four years, was that Jacobellis didn’t take this seriously, couldn’t comprehend the gravitas of the Olympics — as if the outfit that put this demolition derby of a sport on the program in an overt attempt to skew younger and attract viewers deserved such regard.

Some speculated that Jacobellis, a darling of the pre-Olympic advertising cycle in 2006, would never see that kind of attention from Madison Avenue again after that sort of mistake.

She did lose one sponsor — a cereal maker that was expected to leave the fold anyway. The deals with Visa, Under Armour, Paul Mitchell and the rest, however, all came back.

“Despite what happened and what might have been written, she’s a great ambassador for her particular event and snowboarding in general,” said her agent, Josh Schwartz. “If you spend time with Lindsey the way the sponsors did, you realize the value she provides, and her story is even stronger going into these Olympics.”

So is she.

She said the questions come up every time she sits down for an interview. That is, as of now, her Olympic moment. It’s still the prominent entry on her Wikipedia page, the moment she has had to own because, well, she did it.

On Feb. 16, she’ll line up with a chance to undo it — or at least, to write a different ending.

“I guess it’s a little hard to believe it’s still there when it’s something that happened four years ago,” Jacobellis said. “But some things don’t die out very easily. So, if it helps promote my name, if it gets people thinking, ‘Maybe she’ll get it this year,’ then hopefully people will tune in and I’ll get a positive wave out of that.”

And if she’s all alone, in the lead, with the finish line in sight?

“That won’t happen again,” she said.

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