Lindsey Jacobellis wins the 1st American gold medal at the Beijing Games
Lindsey Jacobellis had the finish line in sight again. The most dominant athlete in the world in the history of snowboard cross, she has been so many times in the Olympics. She had never got there first, even in 2006, when she took the lead and made one of the most notorious Olympic mistakes in history.
She wouldn’t let the gold escape this time. Jacobellis found the end of his storybook by handing the United States its first gold medal at the Beijing Games on Wednesday.
Jacobellis, 36, led the four-woman final from the start, her familiar golden curls peeking out of her helmet as the riders spent 90 seconds navigating a winding course of banked turns, washboard rolls and tall jumps.
This time, when the finish was in sight, Jacobellis crouched down. As she crossed the line, she flashed a huge smile and put her hands on her heart, as if to hold it.
“It seemed like an incredible moment,” she said afterwards. “It didn’t seem real at the time.”
The victory will be portrayed as redemption for Jacobellis, although she never saw her downfall in 2006 – when a premature celebration cost her a certain victory – as something to redeem. At the time, she was 20 years old, a young star in the making, the gold medal in sight. But on her last jump, without competitors, she added some flair in the air – a hold of her board. She landed on her heels and fell onto her back, spinning three times before stopping.
Switzerland’s Tanja Frieden zoomed past before Jacobellis could pull herself together and ride to the finish for second place, one of the most unforgettable silver medals in Olympics history.
“The saddest snow angel in the Alps,” wrote the New York Times that day.
At the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, Jacobellis swerved in a semifinal and missed the final. And in 2014, in Sochi, Russia, she was leading a semi-final when she stumbled on a series of late rolls and missed the final again. In 2018, she returned to the final, another chance to win a gold medal. She took fourth place.
In between those public disappointments, she spent time winning World Cup trophies and world championships. When asked about the Olympics, she consistently downplayed their importance. Asked about 2006, she never felt the need to explain herself.
Asked about redemption on Wednesday – and finally able to look forward to a gold medal – she kept her emotions in check. After all those years of trying to put 2006 behind her, she wasn’t comfortable validating anyone’s notion of redemption.
“I never thought of it that way – it just wasn’t on my mind,” she said. “I just wanted to come here and compete. It would have been a good thing, but I think if I had tried to spin the thought of redemption, it would have somehow distracted from the task at hand.
But the 2006 spill may have changed her life, she acknowledged, perhaps 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. If she had won gold then, she said, “I probably would have quit the sport then, 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 from Australia, a longtime friend and rival, was among the swarms of admirers who congratulated her.
“She’s like, ‘I’m so happy 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 the first medal. As Gaskill spoke of her victory, she began to cry.
“I don’t think there are any words that can capture this moment,” Gaskill said. “For Lindsay to win at her fifth Games and be at the top of the sport for so long and inspire so many young girls like me, she is the face of this sport.”