ENCINITAS, Calif. >> The Olympics were months away, and Lindsey Jacobellis, the world’s most dominant athlete in the short history of snowboard cross, wore shorts and a tank top and sipped from a water bottle on a warm day near the beach. She had arrived at the coffee shop from home on a skateboard. Two dogs slept at her feet. A starfish pendant dangled from her neck.
Her body was nowhere near the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But her mind was.
“Wouldn’t it just be nice if the media didn’t harangue me for something that happened 12 years ago?” she said. “I’m sure we can go into everyone’s past 12 years ago and pick out something that they coulda, shoulda, woulda done. It’s just mine was on a world stage that people have a hard time forgetting, or they just think that’s the only thing that’s happened or that it defined me as an athlete.”
The day before, as she had done a time or two most weeks for most of a year, the 32-year-old Jacobellis spent an hour on FaceTime talking with Denise Shull, her mental coach — a “performance architect,” in Shull’s words. They spoke about how to handle the coming onslaught of uncomfortable questions from reporters bent on dredging up past failings — especially that one notorious fall — as if all of life can be reduced to a single, recycled storyline.
Working with a mental coach, or a psychologist, or a performance architect, is nothing new in sports. But two things made this pairing more interesting than most.
One was Shull, a middle-aged New Yorker, with a background steeped in finance and stock traders, not sports and snowboarders. She had not worked with an athlete before.
The second was Jacobellis. She had not simply come up short of expectations in three previous Winter Games — she had what may still stand as the best-known Olympics blunder in history. Coasting toward a gold medal at the 2006 Turin Games and, adding a little style to a coronating jump, she slipped and skidded to the snow. She was passed and finished second, one of the saddest silver medals of them all.
She has been trying to overcome it since — not for herself, really, because she has moved on, quite spectacularly, if people would just pay attention more often than every four years. What she was trying to overcome was something ghostlier, something harder to catch and release, which is the nagging feeling that when huge numbers of people think of Lindsey Jacobellis, they see a blooper, not a champion.
She knew the questions were coming because she faced them in 2010, when she fell short again, and in 2014, when it happened a third time. Certainly, her reward for remaining atop her sport as the 2018 Winter Games approached was to be asked them all again.
The biggest difference this time, besides the experience and wisdom that come with four more years, is that Jacobellis has Shull. Their pairing was the idea of Peter Foley, the longtime U.S. snowboard cross head coach.
“She’s had a bad experience with the Olympics, and in a lot of ways she dreads the Olympics now,” Foley said. “It would be nice if she could feel better about it.”
Shull’s purpose is to see if a new mindset can make the difference between gold and disappointment. And as much as it frustrates Jacobellis to be reminded of it all, internally she has embraced Shull’s unusual advice: Do not try to put 2006 out of your mind, because that is impossible. Even in the starting gate, even in a gold medal race, if the thoughts creep to the memory of a long-ago fall, not the gauzy vision of the medal stand, seize them.
“What you want athletes to do is say, ‘I’m afraid,’” Shull said. “Because they all are. And if they say it, they can use it. If they try to set it aside, it’s lurking around them, interrupting what they normally know how to do.”
It is the opposite of what many sports psychologists and coaches preach, which is to clear the mind and think only positive thoughts. To Shull, to pretend that negativity does not exist is as ridiculous as children holding hands over their ears and shouting “nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh” to avoid hearing what is being said.
The results have been promising. Jacobellis, a 10-time gold medalist in boardercross at the X Games (which discontinued the event in 2017), won her fifth world championship last March and the first two World Cup events this season. She has reasserted herself as the favorite heading into the Olympics.
“Hopefully these are all small positive steps, moving forward, that could potentially have things line up for me right for this one,” Jacobellis said.
‘I WANT YOU SCREAMING’
Jacobellis and Shull mostly talk from distant time zones. They have met in person only a few times. They may be the odd couple of the Olympics.
Shull hails from the financial world, having made a living as a trader and trading desk manager. But a deep interest in psychology (her master’s thesis at the University of Chicago was on the neurobiology of Freud’s Repetition Compulsion Theory) had her thinking about mind games on Wall Street, where the general rule is to take emotion out of decision making.
She began coaching traders and fund managers about harnessing and using emotion, leading to the book “Market Mind Games,” the founding of a consulting agency called the ReThink Group and appearances on business-related networks like CNBC.
Clients, she said, told her that her unusual views on confronting emotion, not ignoring it, helped with out-of-work diversions, too, like golf. A trading desk manager in Asia, Shull said, raced cars as a hobby, and one particularly fear-inducing turn on a racetrack consistently ruined his time.
“I said, ‘OK, as you go into that turn, I want you screaming in that car that you are terrified,’” Shull said. “What do you think happened? Fastest time ever. Coaches might have a heart attack if they heard a racer say that — literally, ‘I’m terrified, I’m terrified, I’m terrified.’ But the chances that they win have gone way up. That contracts the energy in a way it becomes fuel. It focuses the energy.”
A colleague had a connection to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, and Shull espoused her theories to coaches at a meeting in 2016. Afterward, she was approached by Foley. I think I have a client for you, he said: Lindsey Jacobellis.
“I didn’t know her,” Shull said. “So I Googled her.”
She learned that Jacobellis grew up in Connecticut and, as a teenager, was an up-and-coming racer in the burgeoning sport of boardercross, where a pack of riders leaves the gate at once and navigates a high-speed roller coaster of a course, racing to the bottom amid the occasional carnage of collisions and crash landings.
Her rise was timed perfectly. She was 20 when snowboard cross, as the Olympics called it, made its Olympic debut in 2006. Jacobellis was anointed, predictably, as a made-for-television sweetheart in a must-see new event, a favorite with cascading ringlets of blond hair and a smile that masked her competitive muscle.
Then, in a moment, she became better known for falling than she would have for winning, the butt of jokes and even the target of animosity. She never really understood it. She tried to smile it away, but strangers seemed more bothered by the fall than she did. Wherever she went, the episode and the questions — How? Why? — followed her like a plume of snow.
The 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, were considered a chance at redemption, but Jacobellis swerved off course in a semifinal heat and missed the final. In 2014, in Sochi, Russia, she was leading a semifinal heat when she stumbled on a set of late-race rollers and missed the final again.
“I don’t think it has to do with the Olympics,” she said that day in Russia. “It’s just on a fluke of when things work out for me and when they don’t.”
Her longtime teammate Faye Gulini was more exacting.
“People don’t understand how much pressure is put on her,” she said four years ago. “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.”
Shull’s first conversation with Jacobellis in 2016 focused on 2006. Shull was one of the first people who did not try to convince Jacobellis that she should just get over it but instead said she should examine it.
“I was like, wait a minute — you were doing what teenagers do,” Shull said. “You were defining yourself. ‘Everyone expects me to be this perfect little golden girl who wins this gold medal,’ and what do we all do as teenagers? For normal people, you change your major in college, or you date the wrong girl. You do something that’s different than what everyone is telling you and expecting you to do.”
It was a distinct echo of what Jacobellis said at the coffee shop that warm day not long ago.
“Breaking it down, it was almost this rebellious act,” she said. “And what 19-year-old” — she was 20 — “doesn’t flirt with a little rebellion when they’re growing up as an individual?”
One of the dogs, a terrier mix named Gidget, stirred at her feet. Jacobellis continued.
“I had always been so disciplined, and then you get to that moment where you have a choice, and you almost don’t want to do something that someone is forcing you to do,” she said. “Now it’s a little bit easier to forgive myself because now you understand, maybe, why you did something when you didn’t know the rhyme or reason for it. It wasn’t an insult to the country. It was just me being a teenager and trying to express myself and having fun snowboarding and being lost in the moment.”
“It was just something that happened,” she said, conclusively. Gidget barked, as if for punctuation, or maybe an amen.
NO MIRACLE CURE
Before the 2006 Winter Olympics, Jacobellis starred in a commercial for Visa. A fictional coach tried to calm her nerves.
“Imagine yourself on the medal stand,” he said. “No one can touch you.”
It is the same positive-thinking mantra athletes routinely hear. Shull does not buy it. It’s OK, even helpful, she said, to be nervous at the starting gate, to hate a certain part of the course, to have memories of falling as the next finish line approaches. Just talk about it.
Foley admitted that Shull’s advice to Jacobellis can make him uneasy.
“The more she deals with it, in some ways, that’s hard work — you’re not allowing yourself to ignore all the feelings you have, and that’s got to be difficult,” Foley said. “But it’s worth a try. We’ve been there a lot of times, and it hasn’t gone how we wanted for Lindsey, so why not work hard like this and see where we can get?”
Foley said Shull was not “a miracle cure” and nixed the idea of her attending the Olympics, preferring that Jacobellis keep a relatively normal competition routine. But Jacobellis and Shull met in California for a couple of days just before Jacobellis left for South Korea. They expected to continue their long-distance sessions leading to next Thursday, the day of the women’s snowboard cross competition.
Back in Encinitas, in another time and place, Jacobellis allowed herself to daydream about the Olympics. She admitted to a “very strong love-hate relationship” with them.
“I’m hoping that through all the years that I’ve been doing this, that these things will all come together and help keep me calm and focused, and hopefully I’ll come through,” Jacobellis said.
Soon she was gone, on her skateboard trailed by two dogs, thinking she might spend the afternoon surfing. The Winter Olympics, past and future, felt far away.