Jacobellis makes rookie mistake on biggest stage

Lindsey Jacobellis tried to show off and she got what she deserved: She fell on her tail.

Jacobellis had a 50-yard lead in the first women's Olympic snowboardcross final Friday in a dandy of a race. She had looked over her shoulder several times in the bottom section of the run to see where her opponents were on the course. Obviously, she could already feel the weight of that gold medal around her neck. She was excited. She was confident of her victory. And she tried to show off a bit, throwing a back-side method over the second-to-last jump. But she held the grab too long, lost her edge and tumbled to the snow.

While she was scrambling to get up, Tanja Frieden of Switzerland came around the final turn and blew by Jacobellis to steal what would have been Team USA's fourth gold medal in snowboarding at these Olympics. But then again, Frieden didn't really steal anything; Jacobellis gave it to her.

It joined an elusive list of some of the big blunders in sports history. When Dallas Cowboy Leon Lett was carrying that fumble return like a grocery bag against the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII, Don Beebe came out of nowhere to knock it out of his showboating hands. When Mookie Wilson's ground ball rolled through Bill Buckner's legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, at least the first baseman had a bouncing baseball to contend with. The only thing in Jacobellis' way was her own ego.

"I was caught up in the moment. I think every now and then you might see something like that," Jacobellis said during a conference call. "I didn't even think twice. I was having fun and that's what snowboarding is. I was ahead. I wanted to share with the crowd my enthusiasm. I messed up. It happens."

Higher on the course, Frieden had tussled a bit with Dominique Maltais of Canada, sending Maltais, the eventual bronze medalist, into a crash. Maelle Ricker of Canada, the fastest qualifier of the day and easy winner of both her quarterfinal and semifinal heats, also lost an edge in a steep right-hand turn higher on the course. She careened through the fence lining and had to be carried off on a stretcher.

Only Frieden had even the slightest chance of catching Jacobellis, who had taken the lead before the racers even got to the first turn.

After the race, Tom Kelly, the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Association's vice president of public relations, was seen huddling with Jacobellis and his staff. They clearly got their stories straight.

"I'd been having trouble with that jump all day," Jacobellis said. "The wind has just been catching me weird, and I tried all sorts of grabs to see which one would work to stabilize me in the air, but it just didn't work."

No matter how many times she was asked, Jacobellis insisted that the twist-and-grab method had been for balance, not for show. "It's not like a freestyle jump where you're trying to create style, you're just trying to create stability," she said.

Frieden was asked if she had any trouble over the jump in question. "I didn't have any problems with that jump," she said. "They were not that big. We always have bigger jumps. I felt fine on them."

And the truth is, a snowboardcross rider just doesn't throw a flashy backside method if stability is what she's looking for. Jacobellis' snowboard sponsor, Shaun Palmer, is known for throwing the same trick in the same fashion. Jacobellis also tried out for the U.S. halfpipe team, so she's no stranger to knowing board tricks. It all adds up to showboating, and showboating can cost a competitor a win.

"By the third turn, Lindsey had an insane lead," said U.S. snowboarding coach Peter Foley. "I was just thinking, 'Keep racing, keep racing,' because it happens a lot in boardercross, that you're winning by a mile and something goes wrong. You can say it's bad luck, but she was in control. Maybe with a rider older than Lindsey, they'd be at a point where that wouldn't have happened."

Jacobellis is just 20 years old, and a young 20 at that. Maybe she hasn't yet learned to pick her spots.

"Sometimes it's subconscious, but that was putting on a show," American Seth Wescott, who on Thursday won men's snowboardcross gold, told an AP reporter after the race. "I did it in my early rides, but you have to choose your time and make sure you don't miss."

As Jacobellis fell, Foley covered his face with his hands at the bottom of the hill. In the stands, Jacobellis' father did the same. Her entourage, clad in striped cat-in-the-hat tops that read "Lindsey USA" and waving "Lindsey: Speed Goddess" and "Good Luck Lindsey" signs, rolled up their big American flag.

Though Jacobellis stuck by her stability story and refused to acknowledge that it was nothing more than hubris that cost her the gold, she did admit that she was a bit disappointed with her second-place finish. "When it came down to it, I wasn't able to put it all together." she said.

"This is boardercross," Frieden said. "I've learned it's never finished until it's finished."

Jacobellis just learned that lesson the hard way.

Lindsay Berra is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.