- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

BARDONECCHIA, Italy — Alone in the clear, Lindsey Jacobellis could have practically crawled to the finish line and won.

After an Olympic-sized flub, she probably wishes she had.

Coasting to what should have been a runaway victory yesterday, the 20-year-old American grabbed her board on the second-to-last jump before the finish line. Inexplicably — and some say inexcusably — she fell.

“I was caught up in the moment,” Jacobellis said.

While she scrambled to her feet, Switzerland’s Tanja Frieden caught up and sped past Jacobellis to become the first champion in the strange and wild sport of Olympic women’s snowboardcross. Jacobellis settled for silver.

Then, the debate began.

“She definitely styled that a little too hard,” U.S. snowboarding coach Peter Foley said, after looking at a frame-by-frame breakdown of the jump taken by Associated Press photographers.

Jacobellis was so far ahead as she approached the fateful jump that Frieden couldn’t even be seen in the early frames of the AP photo breakdown.

So, the question is, should Jacobellis have gone for the so-called “backside method grab” she attempted at the end — a trick she rarely tries and one that included a flashy 60-degree twist right in front of the grandstands?

To many, it was blatant hot-dogging. In the moments after the race, Jacobellis insisted it was pretty much standard operating procedure and that she did it only to “create stability.”

A few hours later, in a conference call, she held to that point, but also conceded there might have been some showboating going on.

“I was having fun,” she said. “Snowboarding is fun. I was ahead. I wanted to share my enthusiasm with the crowd. I messed up. Oh well, it happens.”

She went tumbling after the jump, which she had executed cleanly in her four previous runs through qualifying and the early rounds of finals.

Foley fell to the ground in shock. Jacobellis’ family and friends, dressed in funky red-white-and-blue hats in the stands, stared at the finish line with their mouths agape.

“She just tweaked it too hard,” Foley said after looking at the AP photos. “Definite styling on that jump. That’s a good stable grab but she pulled it across too far, definitely, for it to be safe.”

Of course, even the most rigid of riders would admit that snowboarding is about style. Jacobellis fits that mold. She was ubiquitous on Visa commercials back in the States, has done her fair share of photo shoots and doesn’t shirk from the publicity that comes with being one of America’s stars in the sport.

In the leadup to the Olympics, Jacobellis also had dreams of competing in the halfpipe, where the kind of grab that cost her on the snowboardcross course is much more common.

So, trying to finish with flair might not have seemed so out of line, especially given the lead she had.

Men’s gold medalist Seth Wescott does it and so does his flashy teammate, Nate Holland.

“She’s 20 years old,” Foley said. “If she got caught up in the moment, she got caught up in the moment. It’s not the end of the world for me. When I saw her go off the jump, I didn’t see anything weird about it. I didn’t go, like, ‘Oh, no!’ Especially because Nate and Seth grab method almost every run.”

Wescott, who was on hand, said indeed he does go for style — just not in the most crucial of situations.

“Sometimes it’s subconscious, but that was putting on a show,” Wescott said. “You’ve got to choose your time and make sure you don’t miss.”

Wescott is Frieden’s boyfriend and his opinion may not have been completely objective.

But he was hardly alone.

“You’re not supposed to grab your board,” Canadian bronze medalist Dominique Maltais said. “It’s not a halfpipe race, it’s just boardercross.”

And American Jayson Hale: “It’s kind of a little victory thing. And when you’ve got that much of a lead at the end, you throw in something for the crowd, for fun. It happens. Just not at the Olympics and not when you’ve got a medal in your hand.”

Jacobellis got the medal, only a different color than it probably should have been.

She didn’t feel her finish — the Lindsey Leap — reflected poorly on Americans.

“I don’t think that at all,” she said. “Just because we win a lot doesn’t mean we’re showboating.”

Maybe the oddest part of the whole day was that the key sequence came with Jacobellis all alone, not bunched up in the crowd, which is when the memorable moments are supposed to come on a snowboardcross course.

In this sport, four riders take off from the starter’s gate and go shoulder-to-shoulder through the 1,000-yard, high-banked, narrow track. Wild crashes are common.

At the beginning of the final run, there were some more traditional thrills and spills.

Canadian Maelle Ricker, the fastest woman in qualifying, came off a jump, rotated awkwardly, caught her backside edge on the landing and smacked her back and head onto the ground. She was taken off the course on a stretcher and flown to a hospital in Turin, and was later released with no major injuries.

A few moments after that wreck, Maltais lost her balance and careened into the netting after a jump.

Those wrecks made it a two-woman show, though really, it wasn’t even that.

As she approached the fateful jump, Jacobellis had a bigger lead than anyone in any heat, men’s or women’s, in two days of racing in the newest, wildest sport on the Olympic program.

All over but the shouting, they say.

“But sometimes,” Maltais said, “things like this happen in snowboardcross.”

And because of it, Jacobellis had a lot of explaining to do.

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