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Winter Olympics

Lindsey Jacobellis just exorcised the greatest Olympic blunder of all-time

February 09, 2022

Patrick Smith

We could have a long discussion about the worst blunders in sports history—this is Golf Digest, so we need to at least tip our cap to Jean Van de Velde—but for me, in terms of pure, unnecessary heartbreak, nothing really comes close to Lindsey Jacobellis at the Turin Olympics, 2006. Jacobellis was one of the best snowboard cross racers in the world—snowboard cross is a snowboard event in which you race the other competitors in heats of four—and she found herself leading by an insurmountable margin in the gold medal race. No exaggeration, she was 10 seconds from winning an extremely easy gold medal. She looked back, assessed the situation, and then made the choice to do a little showboating by executing a mid-air grab on the second-to-last jump. What happened next is, 16 years later, still so hard to watch...but it's worth watching the whole race to see exactly what happened:

Since then, her Olympic career has been cursed. She's won 30 world cups, six world championship gold medals and ten more golds in the Winter X-Games, making her the undisputed snowboard cross goat in terms of sheer victories. But when it came to the biggest stage of all, she was snakebitten. In 2010 at Vancouver, she had an awkward landing in the semifinal race and had to veer out wide to avoid hitting another racer. In 2014 in Sochi, she was leading her semifinal race when she crashed out again. By the time Pyeongchang came around in 2018, it felt like it might be her last shot. She made the finals, and was leading for most of the race, but finished in 4th, missing the podium by .003 seconds.

Meanwhile, the media ran stories with headlines like "The Haunting of Lindsey Jacobellis," detailing her work with a mental coach, and how she came to dread the Olympics.

“I had always been so disciplined, and then you get to that moment where you have a choice, and you almost don’t want to do something that someone is forcing you to do,” she told The Times. “Now it’s a little bit easier to forgive myself because now you understand, maybe, why you did something when you didn’t know the rhyme or reason for it. It wasn’t an insult to the country. It was just me being a teenager and trying to express myself and having fun snowboarding and being lost in the moment.”

Which brings us to Wednesday morning. Jacobellis, now 36, qualified for the knockout rounds with the fifth-best seeding time, and in her round of 16 race, she blew away the other three racers after a wobble at the start (in each round, the top two advance). In the quarterfinals, she moved to the front immediately and never relinquished her position. That brought her to the semis, where she took on fellow American Stacy Gaskill and Italian favorite and defending gold medalist Michela Moioli, both of whom were faster than her in qualifying. Didn't matter—she once again took the lead immediately, and held the inside line all the way down. Moioli and Gaskill were both eliminated. That brought her, for the third time in five Olympics, to the final race. Jacobellis was in the green bib; watch for yourself:

When you talk about stories of perseverance and resilience in sports, usually you're dealing with a time span of a few years, at most. In extreme cases, as we saw with Nathan Chen in figure skating in these Olympics, it can be a case of four years. But 16 years? That's incredible, and if you're a fan of redemption stories, Jacobellis' gold is the best possible one you could have hoped for in Beijing.