Five-ring Circus

Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis Deserved the Redemption Narrative NBC Gave Shaun White

Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis of the United States attends a press conference at the Main Press Centre during previews ahead of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 8, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis of the United States attends a press conference at the Main Press Centre during previews ahead of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 8 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

At the end of the women’s snowboardcross event that aired on Thursday night, American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis stood with NBC’s Tina Dixon and reflected on her fourth consecutive Winter Olympics disappointment. The 32-year-old Jacobellis had cruised through the preliminary rounds and seemed positioned to win her first medal since 2006. But after leading the pack for much of the final race, she fell behind in the homestretch and finished in fourth place. “You are the most dominant woman in snowboardcross,” Dixon told Jacobellis, a data point that didn’t sound much like a compliment at this particular moment. “You have five world championships, and you’ve just won so many events. For some reason, the Olympics just always seem to get away from you. But how much does that define you?”

Jacobellis wasn’t buying the premise. “Actually, it doesn’t define me as an athlete,” she told Dixon, in the tone of voice befitting someone who’s been fielding variations on this question for 12 years. Lindsey Jacobellis doesn’t want your pity. She also doesn’t care if you think she deserves your scorn.

As Dixon said, Jacobellis is the greatest female snowboardcross racer of all time, and yet it now seems likely that her silver medal at the 2006 Torino Games will mark the peak of her Olympic career. That’s a shocking statement, because she won that particular medal after committing one of the all-time biggest blunders in sports history. In the snowboardcross finals in Torino, Jacobellis held what seemed like an insurmountable lead going into the homestretch. As she approached the second-to-last jump, she briefly turned her head back to check on her closest competitor—Tanja Frieden, of Switzerland, who might as well have been in Switzerland for all the chance she had to catch Jacobellis. Confident in her lead and her inevitable victory, Jacobellis decided to hot-dog it a little bit, sailing off the jump and bending down to grab her snowboard in a trick called a method air.

“Ohhhh!” cried NBC’s Todd Richards and Pat Parnell in unison, as Frieden cruised by the stunned Jacobellis, who had to scramble to make it to silver. Later, Richards diagnosed what had happened: Jacobellis lost her balance after holding on to the trick too long and landing on her heels. “She … she just went down on a showboat trick,” said an incredulous Richards.
“Second-to-last jump and she goes down on a showboat trick!”

It was a massive unforced error, but at the time it seemed like the product of youth and inexperience. Jacobellis was 20 years old in Torino, and everyone expected she would have ample opportunity to win gold medals in the future. And she did. Between 2007 and 2017, Jacobellis won four gold medals in snowboardcross at the biennial FIS Snowboard World Championships. (She’d also won gold there before Torino, in 2005.) She has won an astounding 10 gold medals in snowboardcross at the Winter X Games, with seven of those medals coming after the Torino debacle. She has dominated in her sport for a good 15 years, and her fellow snowboarders know how good she is. “She’s the best snowboardcrosser that ever lived,” teammate Nick Baumgartner recently told the Associated Press. “There’s no shame in that.”

But with regard to Olympic competition, Jacobellis has never redeemed herself for her 2006 mistake. She bungled a jump in the semifinals in 2010 and didn’t even make it to the final race. She crashed in the semifinals in 2014, and that was the end of her Sochi experience. Her defeat in Pyeongchang was anticlimactic. She started out in the lead but gradually lost it. She didn’t fall down or get tripped up. She didn’t try to turn any unnecessary backflips. She just got outraced. “And Lindsey Jacobellis: The fourth time is not the charm,” commentator Todd Harris said on NBC.

It’s a shame Jacobellis didn’t get the medal she’d been striving for. Her persistence in chasing the gold medal she lost 12 years ago is a truly inspirational storyline, and it would’ve been nice to have seen a happy ending. “She’s had a bad experience with the Olympics, and in a lot of ways she dreads the Olympics now,” Team USA snowboardcross coach Peter Foley recently told John Branch of the New York Times. “It would be nice if she could feel better about it.”

Jacobellis actually deserved the redemption narrative NBC foisted upon Shaun White in the run-up to the games. White already had two gold medals coming into Pyeongchang as well as a track record of alienating personal conduct that made it hard to root for him to succeed. Jacobellis, by comparison, is admired by her peers and has never been accused of sexual harassment. She told NBC’s Dixon that she is planning to put her energy toward shepherding an all-female snowboarding event. She has been as dominant in her discipline over the years as White has been in his, and she appears to care deeply about her sport and those who compete in it. If she needed to atone for the sins of Torino, she has more than done so.

And yet, as far as the wider world is concerned, Jacobellis is the sum total of her most visible mistakes. Casual Olympics fans have learned to roll their eyes at Jacobellis. Good old Lindsey Jacobellis, we say. It’s always something with her. It’s easy to see her as nothing more than a great athlete who inevitably chokes in the clutch. There might be a measure of truth in that observation, but it’s hardly the final word. “I’ve qualified for four Olympics, and, like you said, I am the most decorated, and I’m still at it,” Jacobellis told Dixon in their post-race interview. “And, you know, I have several years on a lot of these younger girls, and I’m still in the mix, and I’m still defining this sport and pushing the level of it, and continuing to grow with it as well. And I don’t really plan on stopping any time soon.”

Jacobellis’ talent and perseverance makes her great. Her failures make her human. And her story has always been more complicated than it looks to those of us who only watch her perform once every four years.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

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