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Associated Press/Photo by Mark J. Terrill

Boarded up

Sports | Olympian Lindsey Jacobellis downplays her disappointment to her own detriment

Issue: "Fighting poverty," March 13, 2010

At the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino, Italy, as the United States rose to its collective feet to celebrate a gold medal, Lindsey Jacobellis promptly soured the moment. The talented snowboarder forfeited her massive lead in the woman's snow cross event when she attempted an ill-advised trick off one of the final jumps of the race. She fell, allowing Switzerland's Tanja Frieden to cruise past for the victory.

Fast forward four years to the Vancouver games, and an opportunity for redemption. Named among the favorites to win, Jacobellis seemed poised to deliver a real-life drama on par with the best Disney has ever offered. Instead, she skidded out in the semifinals and never got the chance to race for gold.

Such is the life of an Olympic athlete. The infrequency of the games precludes the sort of repeat chances afforded stars of more prominent sports. A pitcher who blows a save will try again mere days later. A quarterback whose poor play ends a playoff run will have another go the following season.

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Jacobellis must wait another four years, an eternity with which she is already dreadfully familiar-four more years of the same media questions, the same whispers, the same legacy. Here's hoping she will decide against spending another four years in denial.

In the wake of the 2006 slip up, Jacobellis downplayed the incident, initially claiming the trick was just an attempt to stabilize her board and later suggesting the Olympics were just another competition. In this year's go-around, the spin machine was in full effect again. After first blowing off reporters' interview requests, she acquiesced to pressure from the Olympic Committee for a press conference and then remarked: "It's definitely not the end of the world for me. I do so many competitions a year. It's unfortunate that the rest of the world only sees this race and four years ago."

Surely, the sting of her experience is sharper than that. Why the false front of nonchalance? Why the unwillingness to show her humanity?

Her reaction recalls that of fellow U.S. Olympian Bode Miller after his disappointing performances four years ago. Like Jacobellis, the downhill skiing star downplayed his lackluster results, insisting he was "happy he got a chance to party and socialize at an Olympic level." Such apathy offended many spectators, who tune in to the games hoping the athletes will care at least as much as they do.

But this year in Vancouver, Miller redeemed himself. A new tone and approach vaulted him onto the medal stand and back into the good graces of the American public. Jacobellis might hope for a similar recovery four years from now in Sochi, Russia. As it stands, she is in danger of being remembered not so much as the snowboarder who twice fell but as the one who didn't care.

Three strikes ...

Sea World animal trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, was rubbing killer whale Tilikum after a noontime show when the 6-ton, 20-foot whale grabbed her and pulled her underwater. As park officials hustled distraught audience members from the Orlando stadium, the whale thrashed her and she drowned, officials said.

This was the third death involving Tilikum, a 30-year-old whale considered problematic enough that only 12 of Sea World's 29 trainers were allowed to work with him. Brancheau, who decided to become a trainer at age 9 after a visit to Sea World, had more experience than most and was one of the park's best trainers. Park officials suspended shows in Shamu Stadium-but don't expect Tilikum to pay for his crime(s). Calls for returning captive orcas to the wild are growing, but for now killers like Tilikum are protected as an endangered species.

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