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Handle with care

Jacobellis has chance to do right after her blunder

Posted: Friday February 17, 2006 3:40PM; Updated: Friday February 17, 2006 4:08PM
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The miscue that kept  Lindsey Jacobellis from winning gold in snowboardcross earned her a place in history.
The miscue that kept Lindsey Jacobellis from winning gold in snowboardcross earned her a place in history.
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BARDONECCHIA, Italy -- Moments that define an Olympic career may run no longer than the 90 seconds it takes to complete a snowboardcross race. But those that go awry last much longer in replay.

Even if she wanted to erase Friday afternoon's final from her memory, Lindsey Jacobellis will relive it every time she does an interview or toes a start line. Don't be surprised if Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien have something to say about her. If you never expected to hear a snowboarder in the same sentence as Bill Buckner, well, get ready.

Jacobellis, the defending world champion and star of a Visa ad campaign, built a healthy lead in the frenetic final of the snowboardcross. The jostling behind her seemed to confirm her place as the queen of the field, except that this queen has also sought a different crown in her athletic career. Jacobellis also competes in the halfpipe, an event in which big airs and board grabs are as customary as snow. What a perfect time for Jacobellis to pay tribute to her other event.

Coaches and snowboarders sometimes justify stylish grabs at the end of races as strategic precautions against contact. So in a gesture she fancied as pomp and ceremonial afterthought, Jacobellis leapt up and tried to grab her board about 20 meters from the finish. She caught the board on the way up but lost her footing on the way down. Jacobellis fell and spun off the course just long enough for Switzerland's Tanja Frieden to beat her across the finish line.

Hubris got the better of Jacobellis and she settled for silver, but rad style is also part of the snowboard culture. This is a sport still seeking its comfort zone in the sporting universe. While every game this side of Texas hold 'em, disco bowling and tiddlywinks seeks claim as the fastest-growing something, no sport has enjoyed snowboarding's exponential ascension. It is young, hip and everything IOC president Jacques Rogge envisioned when he spoke of modernizing the Games.

But snowboarders? What do we know about them, dude? Aren't these the people who think one-word blow-off answers are cool? It's a sport whose best athlete, Terje Haakonsen of Norway, boycotted the 1998 Nagano Games because he felt the Olympic image wasn't good for his sport.

In this context, Jacobellis can undo a lot of that by taking the high road. She has an opportunity to do more for her sport in defeat than she ever could have achieved in victory. Grace in the face of good effort isn't that tricky, but grace in the face of self-inflicted humiliation is awfully difficult.

She faces some unflattering comparisons. This was Leon Lett celebrating a premature touchdown in the Super Bowl before Don Beebe caught him from behind to knock the ball out of his hands. It's Vikings' defensive end Jim Marshall running the wrong way, Michigan's Chris Webber calling a timeout when his team didn't have any left, Georgetown's Fred Brown passing to North Carolina's James Worthy in the NCAA championship game. It is U.S. Olympians Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson arriving at the Olympic Stadium in Munich in 1972 as their preliminary-round heats of the 100 meters were being run without them because their coach misread a schedule.

The Jacobellis incident is much worse than the error of commission Dan Jansen made when he slipped, worse than Japanese ski jumper Happy Harada costing his team a gold medal by practically falling off the ski jump runway or Sweden goaltender Tommy Salo punching a hundred-foot lob over his own head into the net against Belarus. This was gratuitous hot-dogging, the modern-day hare striking a victory pose as the tortoise crawls past to win the race.

But late Friday, Jacobellis was already off to a good start with an explanation that was honest and thoughtful. "I went for the jump because I was having fun," she said on a conference call. "Snowboarding is fun, and I wanted to share that with the crowd. ... I was caught up in the moment and forgot that I had to race. At least everybody didn't pass me."

If she needs a silver lining -- and surely Jacobellis would rather not have a silver anything right now -- it is the hope for redemption that sustained Jansen for four more races in two more Olympics until he won a gold medal in his final race. At 20, Jacobellis is still the best in her event, and she can be just as good four years from now.

The questions will get old and the jokes won't likely let up, but neither will the appreciation for her and the up-and-coming sport if she handles it with the same class she displayed on Friday.