KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Same sting, different day for Lindsey Jacobellis.
The woman who has dominated her sport for a decade came to the Olympics for the third time Sunday, in search of the gold medal she gave away once and lost in one of those so-called “racin’ deals” the other time.
Far ahead of the other five riders in her semifinal heat on a sunny, slushy afternoon at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, Jacobellis misjudged the second-to-last turn on the course, flew over a jump too fast, lost her balance and skidded onto her back.
She raised her hands for leverage as she skittered into the middle of the course, hoping the momentum might pull her back to her feet. But the snow was too soft and Jacobellis was stuck. She moved to the side and trudged down the hill, snowboard in hand.
“It’s how the wheel turns,” she said. “It just so happened not to work out. It’s hard to accept that.”
Moments after her latest hard-luck loss in the Olympic version of NASCAR on snow, she overcame a slow start and dominated the field in what they call the Small Final — the race that decides seventh place.
Jacobellis now has second-, fifth- and seventh-place finishes in her three Olympic trips. Yes, it keeps getting worse.
Her first Olympic loss, eight years ago in Italy, was a sheer matter of showboating. Out in the clear with two jumps left, she tried a showy grab of her board and tumbled, then got passed for the victory and held up for ridicule in some corners, derision in others.
Four years ago in Vancouver, she collided with Canadian Maelle Ricker, the eventual winner, on an early turn in the semifinal round. That put her off balance and she couldn’t regain control before she rode completely off course. She won the consolation heat — then a four-woman race — that day, as well.
This time, it was a cruel melding of human error and the randomness of snowboard cross that combined to ruin her day.
Jacobellis was well in the lead when she headed into the second-to-last turn and set herself up for a set of four gentle bumps — called “rollers” in snowboard parlance. The traffic behind her — bunched in a four-way scrum for what looked like the last two spots in the final — wasn’t bearing down, but Jacobellis wasn’t sure, so she pushed things as she headed to the corner.
The last roller shot her blindly into the final turn and she lost her balance.
Within seconds, the entire field passed her.
“There’s a lot out there you can’t control, but unfortunately, what I could control today was what didn’t work,” she said. “That’s the unfortunate part.”
Over a career that began when she was a teen, the 28-year-old Jacobellis has a record of putting things together when it counts. She won her eighth Winter X Games title last month, and also has 26 World Cup victories and three world championships.
Then, the Olympics roll around.
“People don’t understand how much pressure is on her,” said her American teammate, Faye Gulini, who finished fourth. “It breaks her heart because I think it takes the fun out of it for her. Just for this event. She loves the sport. She’s a phenomenal snowboarder. But it’s in her head, with that much pressure on you. I’ve never had that kind of pressure but I know it just breaks her as an athlete.”
Another American, Nate Holland, was on hand a day before he tries to end his own 0-for-2 Olympic drought.
“A little bit of heartbreak, for sure,” Holland said.
Jacobellis, who made this Olympics after a full recovery from a pair of knee operations in 2012, acknowledged that heartbreak but said it wasn’t pressure that did her in.
“It’s not that I’m over-amped, or over-excited,” she said. “I was really happy with how the course was coming together for me. It just didn’t work out. I don’t really know how else to say it.”
Jacobellis will be 32 in 2018. There’s talk the Olympics might add a team snowboard cross event for the Games in South Korea — essentially a relay. Jacobellis has been excited about the prospect of racing with her American teammates instead of against them.
It would’ve been so much easier to take one last trip with a gold medal in her pocket.
But it wasn’t to be. Again.
“There are worse things in life than not winning,” Jacobellis said. “A lot worse. And, of course, it’s very unfortunate this didn’t work out for me.”