Lindsey Jacobellis has been the best female snowboard cross racer in the world over the last decade. In Sochi, she was hoping to finally get an Olympic gold medal to prove it.
But once again, she quite literally fell short of the medal that so many thought she deserved.
Sometimes sports are just cruel in that way, especially snowboard cross.
In snowboard cross, four to six competitors race through a course filled with hills, turns and jumps. Like short-track speedskating, the event is filled with wipeouts and crashes. It's not always the best athlete who wins—sometimes it's just the luckiest.
On the Olympic stage, luck has never been on Jacobellis' side.
Oh Sunday, she eased through qualification and her quarterfinal heat, and she was in first place in her semifinal. Then, bothered by the slushy Sochi snow, she simply lost her balance on a series of rollers and crashed.
That was it. It was over. The favorite had come up short on the biggest stage once again.
Dating back to 2003, Jacobellis has won eight gold medals in the X Games, 26 World Cup titles and three World Championships in snowboard cross. In a sport known for unpredictability, that's unprecedented dominance.
But for some reason, she's been unable to finish the Olympics on top of the podium.
Her woes began in 2006. At 20 years old, she was already a three-time defending champion in the X Games when snowboard cross was added to the Olympics in Torino. Suddenly, she was the overwhelming favorite to win the gold medal in the inaugural event.
With all eyes on her, Jacobellis made it through to the final and sped ahead of the competitors. Away from any danger, she seemed to be cruising to the gold medal.
Then, on the final jump, youthful exuberance—and perhaps ego—took over. She showboated on the final jump and fell. She got up, but the gold had slipped through her fingers; she had to settle for silver.
Four years later in Vancouver, still the favorite for gold, Jacobellis was no longer the victim of overconfidence. This time, she was simply a victim of snowboard cross.
Clumped up with a tight pack of riders in her semifinal heat, she lost her balance after a jump and nicked the gate, automatically disqualifying her.
It only takes a split second for an Olympic dream to end.
Throughout it all, Jacobellis has never given up. She recently told Lori Riley and Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times that if it weren't for her past failures, she probably wouldn't still be motivated to compete:
I look back and say, if I ever won the gold in 2006, I probably wouldn't be in the sport.... I was pushed so hard at a young age and didn't even realize that I loved it then. I know for a fact I love it now.
In Sochi, Jacobellis was once again the favorite for gold, but her journey to get to that position was more complicated than it was in years past.
During a practice at the 2012 X Games, Jacobellis fell and tore her ACL. She ended up missing out on nearly two years of competition because her first surgery didn't take, and she had to have another one in December that year.
However, even after a scary amount of time away from competition, the comeback trail was kind to the hardworking Jacobellis. She had success in the World Cup circuit this season and won the X Games gold in January to set herself up in the familiar forefront position in Sochi.
After the ups and downs her career had taken, this year seemed to be perfectly set up for that ultimate Olympic moment of redemption.
Instead, it was heartache again.
John Branch of The New York Times spoke to her teammate and friend, Faye Gulini, who finished in fourth place in the snowboard cross final. Gulini thinks that the pressure of the spotlight has taken its toll on Jacobellis, saying:
People don’t understand how much pressure is put on her. It breaks my heart, because I think it takes the fun out of it for her. Just this event. She loves the sport. She’s a phenomenal snowboarder. But it’s in her head. With that much pressure on you — I’ve never had that kind of pressure on me — but I know that it just breaks her, as an athlete.
A disappointed Jacobellis wouldn't put the blame anywhere but on herself. She simply tried to keep things in perspective.
“There’s worse things in life than not winning,” she told Branch.
Indeed there are. Not everyone wins gold and performs their absolute best when the world is watching. Not all of the great Olympic stories are about redemption, domination or glory. Not every tale has a storybook ending.
Will she try again for 2018? Eddie Pells of The Associated Press addressed the possibility:
Jacobellis will be 32 in 2018. There's talk the Olympics might add a team snowboardcross event for the Games in South Korea — essentially a relay. Jacobellis has been excited about the prospect of racing with her American teammates instead of against them.
Some of the most important Olympic stories are simply about athletes having the strength to come back and try again. Through good times and bad, that's what Jacobellis has done.