BOSTON — Sports lore is replete with memorable blunders.
Back in 1929, a lineman named Roy Riegels picked up a fumble and ran 65 yards the wrong way to cost University of California the Rose Bowl against Georgia Tech. In 1937, Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Mickey Owens dropped a game-ending third strike and the New York Yankees rallied to win the World Series. And in 1968, Argentine golfer Roberto De Vicenzo signed an incorrect scorecard following the final round of the Masters tournament, losing his spot in a playoff. “What a stupid I am,” he said afterwards.
But when it comes to the Olympic stage, Lindsey Jacobellis’ remarkable blooper at the 2006 Turin Games may be unrivalled. In the blink of an eye, she went from America’s “it” girl to its “oops” girl.
It would have been hard to imagine that a 20-year-old snowboarder in an obscure event — snowboard cross, which was making its Olympic debut — could make such a gigantic splash. But before Jacobellis even raced in Turin, she was a breakout star; Lindsey had won her event three consecutive times at the popular X Games and had been featured by Visa and Dunkin’ Donuts in national ad campaigns. She boasted the brash-and-flash style that made her sport a youth favorite, on top of fresh-faced good looks, a megawatt smile and flowing blonde locks that commanded outsized attention.
So Jacobellis went to Turin as a golden girl and was on the verge of adding another most lustrous coat — an Olympic gold medal — when disaster struck. And it was a disaster entirely of her own making. Cross is the snowboarding equivalent of short-track speedskating, where mayhem reigns. Boarders plunge down a long, narrow course at breakneck speeds — through twists, turns, jumps and, inevitably, each other.
In the Olympic women’s final, two of the four racers were barely off the start line when they crashed — one down and out and awaiting a stretcher, the other tangled in a safety fence that bordered the course. Jacobellis’ last rival standing was Switzerland’s Tanja Frieden and she was in trouble after her board was clipped during the chaotic opening sprint. By the time she regained her balance, Frieden wasn’t within hailing distance of the American star.
Jacobellis was cruising down the stretch run — her lead almost half a football field’s length — when she decided to cap her triumph with a classic snowboarder’s flourish. Coming off a jump, she attempted to strike a pose — a stunt called Method air — by reaching backwards and down to grab the heel of her board.
Her next move, after she toppled backwards and skittered off the course, was to look up and watch Frieden glide past her and across the finish line to win the gold medal. Snowboarders, who value style points highly, leaped to Lindsey’s defense. But in the Olympic world where medals are the currency that count, there was only stunned disbelief.
At first Jacobellis denied she had been showboating, saying she had only been trying to stabilize herself. She insisted she was really “stoked” to win silver, having essentially crawled across the finish line to grab second place. But eventually, with some time and distance, Jacobellis would admit that it was, unquestionably, an error in judgment. “A drastic mistake,” she later told USA Today.
On the cusp of Vancouver, snowboarding is more popular than ever, given a huge boost by the Turin Games where the U.S. team won seven medals and turned fans on to a “Flying Tomato” named Shaun White. Jacobellis has proved resilient with three more X-Games victories, while features in Glamour and Teen Vogue along with a lengthy sponsor roster attest to her enduring star power.
As the 24-year-old boarder readies for her second chance in Vancouver, she finds considerable comfort in the knowledge that the blunder in Turin will not sound the final note on her Olympic career. What she now hopes for is another familiar, but far happier sports yarn: victory and blessed redemption.
Ladies Snowboard Cross — Feb. 16