First, a note: this week's post might seem a bit out of place. I intended it for my final post of the now-distant-memory Winter Olympics! But then I veered off to write a few posts on current events. The point of this post, though, doesn't depend on timing — and you probably haven't seen the heartwarming video below — so I hope you can still enjoy my (belated) Olympics coda. Thanks for reading!
I want to end my series of Olympics-themed posts by sharing my favorite story from the Beijing Winter Olympics — featuring ’80s babies Lindsey Jacobellis and Nick Baumgartner. With a combined age of 76, they won gold in mixed team snowboard cross. (That’s where the guys race each other first, and then the women race with a staggered start, based on how their partners did. So if a guy won his race by a second, his partner will get to start a second before the next competitor.)
Quick background: Jacobellis famously had gold locked up in snowboard cross in 2006, but fell doing an unnecessary trick before the finish line, and settled for silver. Personally, I kind of love that she was feeling the vibe and having fun, even though it cost her. She’s the one entirely accountable for it, so I found some of the strident criticism unwarranted.
She has always seemed to me like a cool customer and an interesting person — she’s great at DIY projects, loves animals, and virtually serenaded healthcare workers with a ukulele. And, ya know, she’s the best snowboard cross rider of a generation. Sixteen years after that famous fall, she finally won gold (twice!) in Beijing.
Baumgartner lives in a tiny town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and works pouring concrete part of the year. (“Concrete hurts you,” he said. “Snowboarding is way more fun than concrete.”) He has a son older than some of his U.S. Olympic teammates. After he failed to make the final in the individual event, he gave a heart-wrenching interview. He apologized to his son for his performance, and said that he was running out of chances, but couldn’t possibly retire on such a downbeat note.
Apparently he didn’t know until late in the game that he’d be eligible for the new event, mixed team snowboard cross. Not only was he eligible, he got paired with Lindsey Jacobellis. Days after his tearful interview, the pair won gold.
There are so many great videos involving these two, like Baumgartner walking his dog in the celebratory parade when he got home. And the image of Baumgartner cheering Jacobellis down the hill — “Use that experience, girl!” — is enough to thaw your frozen heart. (She later jokingly complained on the Today show about the headlock he put her in at the finish.)
THE PICTURE OF LINDSEY JACOBELLIS
At the very end of the Today show clip, the anchors ask Baumgartner and Jacobellis if they’ll be back for 2026. Jacobellis, previously stoic, suddenly gets animated. She responds:
It made me think about a book I started recently: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. Dorian is a beautiful young man who panics when Lord Henry, a worldly, older man, tells him how much he will suffer as his beauty fades. He must quickly try to seize all the world has to offer, Lord Henry insists.
Dorian subsequently becomes jealous of an exquisite portrait of himself; he will age, while it will not. He wishes that he could trade places, that the painting could age and he stay young. And that is, in fact, what happens in the novel.
It got me thinking about past and future selves, and living in the moment. Lord Henry caused Dorian to fall in love with an impossible version of himself.
In a way, the public image of Lindsey Jacobellis had been stuck at the 20-year-old version who could have won in Torino. She got over it, and she dominated her sport after that fall. But the year-round audience for snowboard cross is scant compared to the Olympics, and she didn’t medal in 2010, ’14, or ’18.
So news stories would always prominently mention 2006, because that’s what everyone remembers. According to a New York Times article, “The Haunting of Lindsey Jacobellis,” even though she “moved on, quite spectacularly,” she still had to work hard to get over “the nagging feeling that when huge numbers of people think of Lindsey Jacobellis, they see a blooper, not a champion.”
Sixteen years after that fall, she wins two golds in a few days — and is immediately asked what’s next. It’s as if, with “The 2006 Picture of Lindsey Jacobellis” vanquished, suddenly she has to skip ahead.
I understand her flippancy at the question. I know that something similar happens to authors when a book is just published. They spend a few years working on something that readers consume in a few hours, and then those readers ask the writer: What’s next? It’s a little jarring.
But it’s also a completely human reflex to ask, and an extremely well-meaning one. If we weren’t genuinely interested in the person, we wouldn’t ask that question!
Still, next time I have the urge (which is often) to ask someone whose brand new work I just enjoyed, “What’s next?”, I think I’ll try to stop myself. Instead, I think I’ll ask: “What are you enjoying now?”
P.S. Athletes in Beijing ranged in age from 15 to 50. If you’re interested in why we’re seeing more older athletes, a few years ago I shared some of the likely reasons in a piece titled “Aging But Not Aged Olympians.” It was basically the written version of conversations I was having with Mayo Clinic physiologist Mike Joyner.
[Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images]