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SO WHO did you come up with? Fred Merkle? Wrong Way Riegels? Bill Buckner? After you finish reaching for comparisons, think about cutting Lindsey Jacobellis some slack. � Yes, the 20-year-old gave away a gold medal last Friday as if handing a pin to a fawning poliziotto at an Olympic Village checkpoint. In the final of the first women's Olympic snowboardcross, Jacobellis took a Secretariat-like lead over Switzerland's Tanja Frieden, then couldn't resist a bit of showboating. Flying off a jump in full view of the packed grandstand, she reached back and down with her left hand and grabbed the heel edge of her board in a stunt known as a Method air. But the move appeared to throw Jacobellis off line. Upon landing she caught her heelside edge, falling backward and skidding into a nightmare of her own making. As she scrambled to get back onto the course, Jacobellis was overtaken by Frieden and had to settle for silver. While her gaffe sparked incredulity and harsh judgment around the world, it was telling that Jacobellis's peers and coaches were inclined to shrug their shoulders and go easy on her.
The fact is, throwing a Method within sight of the finish line--starting your end zone dance before you cross the goal line--isn't the least bit puzzling to longtime boarders. In a culture of baggy pants and $3, XXL truckstop ballcaps, style matters. A lot.
Nobody said boo last Thursday when men's snowboardcross gold medalist Seth Wescott garnished an otherwise ho-hum first-heat victory with a stylish grab on the homestretch. Plenty of riders did the same thing. It's just that, unlike Jacobellis, none of them had the misfortune of winding up on their cabooses.
Snowboarding is a sport with a proud heritage of "freethinking, creative people who often fall a bit outside the status quo," says Mark Sullivan, publisher of Snowboard magazine. One of them is Shaun White, the guitar-playing, skateboarding hair farmer and reigning men's halfpipe gold medalist. During a recent discussion of his formative boarding years, White recalled watching the legendary Damian Saunders, "who had a black Mohawk and would backflip off any jump. And he had those fangs."
You mean he rode with those plastic Halloween fangs?
"No, man--he filed his teeth into the shape of fangs."
This, friends, is where snowboarding is coming from. And it's why Bardonecchia was the most hopping venue at these Games, from the packed stands to the inspired selections of D.J. Chainsaw to the Euro-babes posing with competitors on a sofa at the base of the hill. Curling, this was not. If you find that off-putting, well, that's a shame. Because halfpipe and snowboardcross (SBX)--a series of four-person races down a serpentine, jump-strewn course featuring whoops, berms, gates, Wu Tang steps and more physical contact than Dancing with the Stars--are going to be around for many years. And right now, the U.S. owns those two events.
While Bode Miller tried to find a finish line and Johnny Weir searched in vain for his aura, American snowboarders were basically running the table, hauling in three gold medals and three silvers. In so doing they were not pushing their sport closer to the cultural mainstream. That's because it's already there.
"The Olympics are just a peek into what's happening on mountains all over the country," says Jake Burton, snowboarding's Henry Ford. "They're a showcase for a sport that's very athletic, that goes hand in hand with an outdoor lifestyle that's healthy and fun. All of these things are universally appealing. It's why our sport has succeeded in spite of a lot of adversity."
Back in the '70s, when he was making boards in a barn, Burton would arrive at a ski resort only to be told, he recalls, "There's no way you're riding that thing on this mountain." As more and more kids started showing up with snowboards, resort owners began to catch on. "Instead of building a video arcade in the basement of the lodge for the kids who had no interest in skiing with their parents, they started building halfpipes," says Burton.