More to final than Jacobellis' fall
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- The woman who won Sunday afternoon's snowboardcross race and became the first athlete from the Czech Republic to medal in Sochi did so while wearing a moustache.
"I did it first at world championships in 2011," Eva Samkova said of the painted-on 'stache that's become her trademark, the most visible declaration of her fun-loving personality. "I finished fifth that year, so it's good luck. Today, it's in my national colors, special for this special day."
Sochi is being billed as the Olympics of the underdog, and it would be easy to mistake the wide-smiling, moustache-wearing, lighthearted Czech as such. She's an Olympic rookie who, before Sunday, was known by few people outside of her sport. Samkova, a 2011 and 2013 Czech national champion, has been the girl on the rise since winning her first of three world junior championships in 2010, but she is only 20 and less experienced than many of the women in the field.
But this season, she's been a force. She won the opening World Cup race in Montafon, Austria, and the most recent in Vallnord, Andorra. In her rookie X Games appearance at the end of January, she finished second behind eight-time champ Lindsey Jacobellis while showcasing her freestyle background and strength over the course's massive jumps. Like Jacobellis, Samkova started her career competing in snowboardcross and slopestyle and was very much a favorite on the oversized course here at the Games.
"This course was big and intimidating and these features scared a lot of people," said Faye Gulini, who finished fourth, the only American rider to reach the final. "But that's what we need to separate the field. That's why I excelled. I'm consistent and I stay on my feet. You saw a lot of girls fall today."
OK, OK. You knew we'd get around to it sometime. But the story of the day was not that Jacobellis fell in her semifinal heat and failed for the third time to win an Olympic gold medal, at least not in this writer's opinion. The story of the day was Samkova, who laid down the fastest time in seeding and dominated all three of her heat races, racing flawlessly all day. That she continued to do so as the target on her back grew larger each round makes her win all the more impressive. "I just wanted to be confident with myself," Samkova said. "But gold, I couldn't imagine this."
Jacobellis likely couldn't imagine how her day would end, either. After missing the past two seasons with a torn ACL and an Olympic history that's marred an otherwise stellar career, Jacobellis was being positioned as the underdog -- or at least a midpack pup -- in the event. So this should have been her Olympics. But once again, it wasn't.
While leading her semifinal race, Jacobellis overshot a set of rollers, landed in a patch of soft snow and was unable to save her landing. She slid out, tumbled onto her back and watched as her five competitors rode past, carrying her chance at an Olympic medal with them. Was it nerves? A momentary lack of focus? A mental block she experiences only every four years?
"I don't think it has anything to do with the Olympics," Jacobellis said after winning the small final consolation race. "It's a fluke of when things work out for me and when they don't. I felt really calm and composed and excited about the course. It didn't work out and I have to accept that."
Her three Olympic falls have little in common. In 2006 in Torino, it was the result of a young, cocky athlete too focused on her post-win parade to focus on the moment. Four years later in Vancouver, she tangled with another rider and was knocked off course. And here Sunday, she simply made a mistake.
"In our sport, there is a lot you can't control," Jacobellis said. "But unfortunately what I could control was what didn't work for me today. In training, I was able to pump those rollers. The course started getting faster and I had to adjust and start doubling them. I did it fine in quarters, and you go faster every heat because people are on your tail. I took that double too far. I thought I was going to be able to pull it off, but when I hit the snow and slowed down, it was impossible to recover."
As a young kid in Torino, she felt that way about her future. But then she grew up, matured and learned that races do not define a career, even very big races that only come around once every four years. She came to Sochi with a new perspective and new hair color and, from this moment, she knows she will very much be able to recover.
"There's worse things in life than not winning, a lot worse, " Jacobellis said. "I trained very hard for this moment and it's unfortunate it didn't work out for me. But I'm not going to let this affect how I view myself."
Those are big words from a woman known for her Lombardi-like focus on winning. But she is also a woman who came to terms only recently with the fact that, had she won in Torino, she would have quit the sport, missing out on all it has given to her in the past eight years. It was that fall that fueled her for the next four years. And after Vancouver, another four after that.
In the finish area after the race, silver medalist Dominique Maltais said she was standing on the podium and, at 33, still competing in the sport very much because of what happened to her at the Vancouver Olympics. A medal favorite heading into the Games, which were being held in her home country, Maltais crashed badly, suffered a collapsed lung and finished 20th overall. "What happened in Vancouver wasn't normal and I decided to take my life into my own hands," she said. "I decided to have revenge and show the world how good I can be. The last four years, I've worked so hard, improving myself to get faster and I made it happen today."
So perhaps Jacobellis' mishaps at the Olympics are the result of a mental block. Perhaps somewhere deep down, she knows she needs these results because when she finally does win an Olympic gold medal, it will mean the end of her career. And maybe she's not ready for that to happen. Maybe she needs the disappointment of seeing that one glaring omission on her résumé to drive her for the subsequent four years, through wins and losses and surgeries and rehab appointments. Maybe it's easier to win at the X Games and World Cup races because she knows, win or lose, she always has next year.
What kind of motivation is that?