When Lindsey Jacobellis arrived in Turin, Italy, in 2006, the then-20-year-old snowboarder did so with a reputation as the best in her sport. Her nickname was “Lucky,” but she relied less on good fortune than on consistent, ruthless domination of an event that was younger than she was. Snowboard cross — a timed discipline defined by cambered turns, berms, frequent competitor collisions, and speeds up to 70 miles per hour — made its Olympic debut in 2006, and Jacobellis was considered an all-but lock to bring home the first gold medal on the women’s side.
The Connecticut native began snowboarding as the lone girl in U-12 boys’ competitions on the bunny slopes in Stratton, Vermont. Her first race against all boys was a “sink-or-swim moment,” she told reporters during her first media appearance at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. She had to prove herself against opponents who were “not going to be wanting a blond girl to win.”
Soon, she worked her way up to national cups and international events. In six years of competition, Jacobellis earned three consecutive Winter X Games titles and a world championship.
Then came the moment her luck turned. In less than a second on February 17, 2006, Jacobellis’s résumé was permanently and irrevocably smudged. On the second-to-last jump during the Olympic snowboard cross final, Jacobellis glanced back and saw that Switzerland’s Tanja Frieden was about three seconds behind. The next time Jacobellis went airborne, she turned her body 60 degrees to the left to grab the back of her board in a “backside method grab” that served, in the eyes of many, no purpose but to gloat.
She landed with her board askew, spinning downhill and out of course lines and the lead. Jacobellis initially claimed the move was for stability, but later admitted that it had more to do with her wanting to “share my enthusiasm with the crowd.”
Twelve years, two Olympic Games, two ACL surgeries, and a handful of world championships later, Jacobellis is still asked to answer for that moment. Heading into this year’s Olympic snowboard cross competition on February 16, she likely has more games behind her than ahead. Every single major international title in the sport — besides the Olympic gold — is hers.
In that first media appearance in Pyeongchang, Jacobellis, now 32, quickly responded to a reporter who questioned her about that tumble. “I don’t look back at all,” she said. “Right now, I’m here. It’s, what year is it? It’s 2018. We’re in Pyeongchang, and I’m focusing on that.”
The clip of Jacobellis’s fall has been billed as a two-minute tutorial in the dangers of hubris. Viewers can see each of the post-grab reactions unfold: Jacobellis slides through the finish for silver and raises her hands in a now what? stance; her coach, Peter Foley, executes an exaggerated face palm; and her father, at the moment she goes down, grabs his hat and staggers back from the spot he’s standing in shock. The NBC commentator, Todd Richards, shouts out: “She just went down on a showboat trick. The second-to-last jump and she goes down on a showboat trick!”
Other than “showboat,” “hotdogging” was the most commonly mentioned descriptor in Jacobellis stories from 2006 coverage. Leon Lett comparisons were also popular. ESPN’s Lindsay Berra declared that she “tried to show off and she got what she deserved.” The Washington Post referred to it as an “Olympic-size blunder.” Fair or not, Jacobellis was depicted as snowboarding’s answer to Icarus; she had soared too close to the sun and gotten burned.
Entering the 2010 Vancouver Games, Jacobellis’s name was often paired in the same sentence as “redemption.” She hadn’t slowed since that slip-up in Italy, earning a world championship in 2007 and X Games golds in 2008 and 2009. The 2010 Olympics were her opportunity to earn the medal that she should (and could) have clinched in Italy. But she landed poorly in her semifinal round, crashed out of a gate, and was disqualified. She never made it to the final.
Perhaps she wasn’t meant to medal, some in the media speculated. Perhaps she should be renamed “Luckless” or “Lunkhead” Lindsey, others said, on account of her “poor judgment and terrible luck.” If karmic retribution for showboating exists, Jacobellis had paid her first dues.
Just about two years after finishing fifth in Canada, Jacobellis tore the ACL and meniscus in her left leg during a practice run at the 2012 X Games. She quickly underwent surgery and rehab, but another examination and MRI revealed that the ligament used to repair the ACL had stretched. It was an ineffective reconstruction. Her 2012 season had already been lost to surgery and rehab; Jacobellis was then forced to miss a significant chunk of 2013 to repair that same knee.
“Every experience is a learning experience,” Jacobellis said at her 2018 media session in South Korea. “You have your setbacks. One of the hardest things was when I got injured, and you just never know as an athlete — will I come back and be as strong? Will I be fearless and get back out there?”
She returned to the Winter X Games in January 2014 and captured her eighth gold medal (and first championship since 2011). But less than a month later, in Sochi, Jacobellis was cruising with another lead in the Olympic semifinal before falling about two seconds from the finish. She didn’t get up fast enough, and placed seventh overall.
Jacobellis is, statistically, the best snowboard cross racer who has ever competed. She boasts a record 29 World Cup wins, 10 Winter X Games titles and five world championships in five attempts, the most for any snowboarder, male or female, in any event. She has more X Games medals than any woman in history — but remains most recognizable for the one medal that she’s never won.
Jacobellis has not announced whether this will be her last Olympics. She’s just one year older than Shaun White — who took home gold in the halfpipe in Pyeongchang after finishing fourth in the same event in Sochi — but is much older than America’s other 2018 snowboarding gold medalists. Jamie Anderson, who emerged victorious in slopestyle, is 27. Chloe Kim (halfpipe) and Red Gerard (slopestyle) are just 17.
In her Olympic media appearance, Jacobellis emphasized her future endeavors, including an all-female snowboard cross event in California in March. After 20 years in the sport (and 16 on the national team), she is fully aware that her next few days will go a long way toward shaping her legacy. Her most likely challengers in Pyeongchang are 22-year-old Italian Michela Moioli (two world championship bronzes) and the defending Olympic gold medalist, 24-year-old Eva Samková of the Czech Republic. In her last World Cup race, on January 27, Jacobellis came in sixth; all but one of the competitors in the top five will be at these Olympics.
She currently sits at fifth in the FIS snowboard cross World Cup standings, and finished in that same spot in 2017. The Olympic field begins with 30 entrants and whittles down the competition to a six-rider final. No number of past accolades, top finishes, or first-place runs can make up for a fumble on the course. Two decades of competition will come down to seconds.
Jacobellis has earned and shed multiple identities over her career. She has been the young phenom and the redemption seeker. Now, she’s the veteran with the end of her international career in full view, vying for the only gold that’s eluded her.
“A medal doesn’t define me as an athlete,” she said. For an athlete once known as “Lucky,” though, this one could forever change her fortune.