On January 3, 2024

With grit and grace, she rose above

Courtesy U.S. Ski & Snowboard

Stratton Mountain snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis, pictured here in 2019, has won more

than 30 World Cup events and six overall championships. 

 

Stratton Mountain Olympic snowboarder Jacobellis rises after a fall to rewrite her life story

By Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Stratton Mountain School alumna Lindsey Jacobellis was 20 years old when, predicted to win the first gold medal in the 2006 Olympic debut of women’s snowboardcross, she heard sportscasters play up her meteoric rise as if spinning a Hollywood script.

Then, just feet from the finish line, it all morphed into “Legends of the Fall.” Jacobellis was leading the field in Torino, Italy, when she grabbed the back edge of her board to punctuate her run, only to lose her balance — and the race.

“Flash Turns to Flub for American in Snowboardcross,” the New York Times would report in one of seemingly countless headlines repeated around the world.

Jacobellis forged on to compete at the Winter Games in 2010, 2014 and 2018, only for the press to again remind the public how the snowboarder who “Looks to Make Fall a Footnote” instead “Again Comes Up Short” and “Again Misses Gold.”

“After a while I started to feel like I was being suffocated by this emerging narrative,” she remembered. “It became the story, instead of just a part of the story.”

Turning 36, she qualified for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, China. Most of her competitors had yet to be born when she had begun racing a quarter-century earlier. Yet her patience and perseverance finally paid off — not with a gilded medal, but two.

“Long Known for a Blunder, Jacobellis Rewrites Her Story in Gold,” the Times would report 16 years after its first headline.

But the oldest American woman to top a Winter Olympics podium was only getting started. Finding her voice, she recently released a new memoir, “Unforgiving: Lessons from the Fall.”

“After spending so much time trying to get out from under that race in Torino, I started to realize there were so many lessons to be learned from stumbling like that in such a public way,” she starts the 240-page hardcover. “I kept telling myself my story would not end with me on my butt on the side of a mountain in Italy. I vowed to write a different ending.”

Still competing abroad on the World Cup circuit, Jacobellis has yet to sit down for a print interview about the book, limiting herself to an occasional broadcast appearance on such outlets as NBC’s “Today.” But after nearly two decades of unrelenting press scrutiny, she may be content to let her newly published words speak for themselves.

‘Most magical, exhilarating feeling’

Jacobellis begins her book by tagging herself a “late bloomer.” She waited until age 5 to step foot onto the slopes of Stratton, where her Connecticut family bought a weekend home in the 1980s. But her talent quickly snowballed.

“My dad was the one who put the idea of speed into my head,” she wrote. “Even when I was skiing between his legs on the bunny hill, he would go fast.”

Her older brother, Ben, was an even bigger inspiration. “Whatever Benny would do, I would do — and, if at all possible, I would try to do it better.”

That meant skiing, skateboarding, rollerblading, motocross biking, lunch-trays-from-the-lodge sledding — and what during her childhood was the fledgling, newfangled sport of snowboarding.

Before Burton was an iconic brand, it was simply the middle name of Jake Burton Carpenter, a New York-born skier who moved to Londonderry in the 1970s to produce boards out of a barn and peddle them to neighbors.

“It was the most magical, exhilarating feeling,” Jacobellis wrote of her introduction to the sport. “It was the whoosh of cold air as I barreled down the mountain. It’s like I was flying, unencumbered by the laws of gravity or physics or any other pesky law of nature.”

Jacobellis and her brother were soon racing Friday nights in an event called “snowboardcross,” hurtling down a Stratton hill pockmarked with twists and turns, ramps and rollers that “seemed to borrow from BMX and short-track speed skating, and maybe even a little bit from roller derby.”

Throughout, Jacobellis considered herself a skier. Then a chimney fire ravaged the family’s Vermont home in 1997. Her parents couldn’t afford to replace everyone’s skis and snowboards, so she had to pick one or the other.

“It was a genuine turning-point moment,” she wrote.

Jacobellis chose a new board and rode it at the next Friday-night race. There, at age 12, she caught the attention of a coach from Stratton Mountain School, which has placed at least one alumnus in the Winter Olympics since the academy’s founding in 1972. Enrolling, she soon competed at the U.S. Open and X Games, all with her eye on an even higher summit.

‘You abruptly realize you’re in a bad spot’

Jacobellis’ Olympic debut wasn’t as a competitor but instead a course forerunner at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. She and fellow Vermont upstart Hannah Teter (who’d nab halfpipe gold in 2006 and silver in 2010) tested the Utah chute where Mount Snow Academy graduate Kelly Clark would win that year.

Jacobellis’ first raced at the 2006 Olympics. Standing atop the Italian snowboardcross hill for the finals, she remembered one way to stay present and focused was to talk to herself. “Speed breeds speed,” she said aloud.

Jacobellis was leading in the third turn when Swiss athlete Tanja Frieden, riding behind her, accidentally clipped her and nearly fell, allowing the American to move farther ahead. “You got this, Lindsey!” she told herself.

Jacobellis’ legs began to tire by the fourth and fifth turns. But knowing Frieden was half a football field behind her, she saw the finish line. That’s when the leader, approaching a jump, tried a trick move.

“I just hit the lip and reached for the back edge of my board like it was nothing at all,” she wrote. “I wasn’t celebrating, as critics and analysts and even some of my fellow snowboarders would soon claim. I wasn’t being brash or reckless or full of myself; I wasn’t showboating or hot-dogging or expressing myself in any purposeful way. I was just riding, lost in this joy-filled moment.”

Until it wasn’t one. “You know that sickening, worrying, stomach-dropping sensation you get when something awful is about to happen and you abruptly realize you’re in a bad spot?” she wrote.

Jacobellis fell. Watching Frieden shoot past to snag gold, she scrambled up to claim silver. 

Jacobellis didn’t watch the replay of what she describes as “one of the biggest unforced errors in sports” until after her podium-topping run in Beijing 16 years later. But she heard about it repeatedly from the public, the press (“the best-known Olympics blunder in history,” the Times would report) and sponsors who quickly dropped their endorsement deals.

“I was just 20 years old, still a kid in so many ways, still finding a way to deal with my own disappointment,” she wrote, “and suddenly there were all these adults I had admired, business partners I had come to trust, looking to put as much distance between me and them as possible.”

‘Embrace it for the story it now tells’

Jacobellis went on to qualify for the Olympics in 2010, 2014 and 2018, only to see the media regurgitate the story of her 2006 stumble when she didn’t win any subsequent medals.

“More and more, the reporters who covered our sport were starting to connect the dots,” she wrote, “and somehow coming to the conclusion that I would always be chasing a way to rescue myself from myself.”

Social media could be just as judgmental, with users commenting that — despite her winning more than 30 World Cup events and six overall championships.

Throughout, Jacobellis persisted, hiring a performance coach to help change her mindset, channel rather than close out her feelings, stand up for and stay true to herself and, ultimately, accept what is and isn’t in her control. “Like a lot of young athletes — most especially, a lot of female athletes — I was used to being ignored and was taught to fall in line,” she wrote. “But that’s just about the worst message to send to our young women, don’t you think?”

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Jacobellis worked her way to the 2022 Olympic snowboardcross course in Beijing.

“It was another one of those bitingly cold days on the mountain that took me back to those frigid mornings in Vermont when I was growing up,” she recalled.

Jacobellis had broken her elbow just three months earlier. But standing at the starting gate of her fifth Winter Games, she focused on the upcoming 90 seconds. “I was feeling super confident, but at the same time I was super mindful of all the things that could still go wrong,” she wrote. “If there was anyone on this mountain, anyone at these games, anyone on the planet who knew what could go wrong at the last possible second, when victory seemed certain, it was me.”

Everything went right. Jacobellis scored not only in her individual race but also in the subsequent mixed event with 40-year-old teammate Nick Baumgartner.

“Funny how that happens,” she wrote. “It takes you 16 years from your Olympic debut to win your first gold medal — and then just three days to win your second.”

Jacobellis has enjoyed the afterglow, seeing herself inducted into the Stratton Mountain School Hall of Fame last spring and releasing her new book last fall.

In May 2022, the athlete capped it all with a visit to the White House. Through security, her solo gold medal was nicked. She came to believe that the mishap only increased its value.

“Embrace it for the story it now tells,” she wrote, and with grit and grace, rise above.

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