Lindsey Jacobellis had the finish line in sight, again. Long the most dominant athlete in the racing sport of snowboard cross, she had been this way many times at the Olympics.
She had never gotten there first, though, not even back in 2006, when she had the lead to herself yards from the line and lost the gold in one of the best-known Olympics blunders in history.
On Wednesday, on her fifth Olympic try, at the age of 36, she would not let gold slip away again. Jacobellis finally captured her storybook ending while delivering the United States its first gold medal at the Beijing Games.
Hers is a tale of a gold medal, lost and then found, 16 years later.
Jacobellis led the four-woman final from the start, her blonde hair spilling out of her helmet as the riders spent 90 seconds navigating the winding course of banked corners, washing-board rollers and big jumps.
This time, when the finish was in sight, Jacobellis kept her crouch low. As she crossed the line, she beamed a huge smile and put her hands to her heart, as if to hold it in.
“It kind of just seemed like an unbelievable moment,” she said afterward. “It didn’t seem real at the time.”
It is a story of quiet perseverance, though it will be painted as redemption for Jacobellis. She never saw it that way. She never viewed her fall at the 2006 Turin Olympics — when a premature celebration cost her a sure victory — as something to redeem. It was a momentary lapse, a bit of youthful whimsy. It cost her in ways the she will never know. She would like to think now that it helped her, spurred her on.
Back then, Jacobellis was 20, a young star in the making, endorsements waiting, the gold medal in sight. But over her last jump, with no competitors around, she added a bit of flair in the air — a grab of her board. She landed on her heels and fell on her backside, spinning three times in a dust of snow.
Switzerland’s Tanja Frieden zipped past before Jacobellis could gather herself and ride to the finish for second place, one of the more unforgettable silver medals in Olympics history.
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“The saddest snow angel in the Alps,” The New York Times called her that day.
The moment, at its simplest and cruelest, was a hinge in a long saga. As a girl, Jacobellis was known as Lucky Lindsey. As a woman, at least at the Olympics, she was anything but.
At the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, Jacobellis swerved off course in a semifinal heat and missed the final. And in 2014, in Sochi, Russia, she was leading a semifinal heat when she stumbled on a set of late-race rollers and missed the final again. In 2018, she returned to the final, another chance to grab a gold medal. She finished fourth.
It gnawed at her more than she allowed on Wednesday, or maybe more than she remembered. In an interview ahead of the 2018 Games, she admitted as much.
“Wouldn’t it just be nice if the media didn’t harangue me for something that happened 12 years ago?” she said then. “I’m sure we can go into everyone’s past 12 years ago and pick out something that they coulda, shoulda, woulda done. It’s just mine was on a world stage that people have a hard time forgetting, or they just think that’s the only thing that’s happened or that it defined me as an athlete.”
By then she had hired a mental coach, to help her perform better under pressure. The U.S. snowboarding team’s coach, Peter Foley, said at the time that the quadrennial public disappointments were in Jacobellis’s head.
“She’s had a bad experience with the Olympics, and in a lot of ways she dreads the Olympics now,” Foley said at the time. “It would be nice if she could feel better about it.”
Between the Olympics disappointments, Jacobellis spent years winning World Cup trophies, X Games titles and world championships. She became a role model in her sport, revered for her work ethic and her consistency. Outside the sport’s bubble, though, the questions about the Olympics kept coming, relentlessly, every four years.
She persistently downplayed their importance. When asked about 2006, she never felt the need to explain. It happened. What could she do?
It was why she smiled through the aftermath of her victory on Wednesday, and waved as she stepped to the top of the podium for the post-race flower ceremony, but never released the unbridled emotion that others might have expected, having been bottled for 16 years.
After spending her adult life downplaying the moment, it would have been incongruent to treat the gold medal as an exorcism. She was not comfortable validating anyone’s notion of redemption.
“I never thought of it that way — that was not in my mind,” she said. “I wanted to just come here and compete. It would have been a nice sweet thing, but I think if I had tried to spin the thought of redemption then it’s kind of taking away focus on what’s the task at hand.”
But the 2006 spill may have altered her life, she acknowledged, maybe more than a gold medal then or now.
“It really shaped me into the individual that I am and kept me hungry, and really helped me keep fighting in the sport,” Jacobellis said. Had she won gold then, she said, “I probably would have quit the sport at that point, because I wasn’t really having fun with it.”
As the sun fell on her fifth Olympics, Jacobellis let others fill in the emotional gaps. Belle Brockhoff of Australia, a longtime friend and rival, was among the swarms of admirers congratulating her.
“She’s like, ‘I’m so happy that this happened for you, because I was little when I watched you in 2006,’” Jacobellis said.
Her teammate Stacy Gaskill, 21, said it meant everything to see Jacobellis finally win their sport’s biggest prize. As Gaskill talked about her victory, she began to cry.
“I don’t think there’s any words that can capture that moment,” Gaskill said. “For Lindsey to win in her fifth Games and be at the pinnacle of this sport so long and inspire so many young girls like me — she is the face of this sport.”