Risking Olympic gold for X Games glory
The crowd waited. And waited. And waited. Lindsey Jacobellis never came down.At one point, the announcer began detailing the run of a woman he thought was America’s gold medal favorite, but it turned out to be someone else. Jacobellis, the best female boardercross racer on the planet – and three-time defending champion in snowboarder X (the event’s ESPN name) – had mysteriously gone missing.Slowly, word began to circulate. Jacobellis was injured. She tweaked her knee. Nobody knew the extent of the injury, only that she had decided not to take her qualifying run in Friday’s snowboarder X preliminary heats.At 3:30 p.m., more than five hours after she was scheduled to compete, Jacobellis issued a statement. “During today’s snowboarder X practice, I overshot one of the smaller jumps, and it felt like I strained my knee,” she wrote. “It was determined by my coach that I should rest my knee and not continue competition the rest of the weekend. … In no way will this incident change my status for the 2006 Winter Olympics.”Jacobellis was one of four U.S. Olympic snowboarders who either were injured or withdrew from an event for a different reason Friday. Andy Finch hurt his foot while practicing in the Buttermilk pipe, and Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler – the Olympic gold medal favorites in women’s halfpipe – withdrew from Friday night’s qualifying competition due to an undisclosed minor injury and mental exhaustion, respectively.In the cases of the athletes injured on Friday, one sees a dreaded scenario. With the Winter Games less than two weeks away, their lifelong dreams suddenly appear to be in limbo. And for what: The X Games, an exhibition event built by cable television.The dilemmaAccording to ESPN, there are 30 athletes in Aspen this week who also are slated to compete at the Winter Olympics in Italy. They come from eight countries. All are snowboarders, specializing either in boardercross or halfpipe.
With the Olympics looming, these riders choose to tempt fate by accepting their invitations to Winter X Games 10. They know what they are doing. Most don’t mind the chance they are taking.”You could walk across the street and get hurt and not go to the Olympics,” said Erin Simmons, last year’s silver medalist in snowboarder X, who will represent Canada in the same event in Turin. “Why not do what you love?”Simmons, like most of the Olympic athletes polled Friday, said she never questioned whether to compete here in Aspen. Her teammate-to-be in Turin, Maelle Ricker, was one who did.In a two-year span leading up to this week’s event, Ricker tore the ACL in her knee three times. The resulting fear still lingers. She went back and forth before finally deciding to accept the X Games invitation.”I definitely thought about it,” she said after qualifying second to Simmons Friday, “but I didn’t want to spend a month without being in a boardercross event.”It’s the X Games, and it’s still a big event,” Ricker added. “You don’t see any ski racers pulling out of the Kitzbuehel races. And that’s like the biggest ski race of the year, right before the Olympics.”California’s Nate Holland, who enters next month’s Olympic snowboardcross competition as the No. 1 American qualifier, said he believes the X Games serves a singular purpose this week.”This is the best training you can get for the Olympics,” said Holland, 27, who describes his attitude toward racing as “wreck or win.” “Sitting at home, or running gates, or just exercising – I’ve done all that. All summer, all fall. I’m in race mode right now.”
Nonetheless, Holland said his sponsors wish he would have skipped the X Games in favor of the Olympics, which are broadcast on network TV and generate more exposure for their brands. Holland quickly points out that he, too, prioritizes the Olympics over the X Games. But, he said, “I’m an adult and I can make my own decisions.”Halfpipe vs. snowboardcrossOnly a small number of athletes actually declined their invitations to the X Games in order to rest for the Olympics. Almost all were European boardercross racers.Hans-Joerg Unterrainer, one of two Olympians from Austria competing in Friday’s men’s snowboarder X qualifying, said he would have thought twice if the event in question wasn’t the X Games.”If you have the chance to compete here, you have to,” the first-time Winter X competitor said.This is especially true in halfpipe riding, where the risks of injury are far lower than in snowboardcross competitions, which feature high speeds and head-to-head action, like stock car racing. The gap in prestige between the X Games and the Olympics is smaller for pipe riders, too, though it still tilts toward the Olympics.Ross Powers, the 2002 Olympic gold medalist and 1998 bronze medalist, said he “saved” himself for the Olympics at Winter X Games Six in 2002. But he still made the trip to compete in Aspen, and escaped uninjured.
Finch, one of the four U.S. riders slated to compete in the Turin halfpipe in February, was not so lucky on Friday. While training in the Buttermilk pipe, the notoriously high-flier soared 15 feet in the air. When he landed, an excruciating pain shot through his foot.After a tense and emotional hour and a half, Finch learned he had not broken his foot, only sprained it. Still, he walked into a press conference later that afternoon with a plastic boot on his foot. Jacobellis was slated to attend the same press conference, but she skipped it instead to nurse her knee injury.In an interview for this story, Finch said only that he was “a little” nervous about his availability for the rapidly approaching Olympic games.The real reasonWhen the Indianapolis Colts began this year’s NFL season at 13-0, critics across the nation debated whether they should play their starters in pursuit of a perfect regular season, or rest them for the bigger prize – the Super Bowl.The snowboarders at Buttermilk this week likely would have voted for the starters to play. “It’s about rhythm, practice, flow,” said Danny Kass, the 2002 Olympic silver medalist in halfpipe and a repeat U.S. qualifier this year.”This is a big event,” J.J. Thomas, who won bronze four years ago, said of the X Games. “If you do good in this event, the benefits can be almost as good as doing good in the Olympics.”Almost.
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