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The Haunting of Lindsey Jacobellis


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 United States 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 mind-set 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.


Denise Shull, a mental skills coach from Queens, has been helping Jacobellis prepare for the Games and the inevitable questions about her notorious fall. Her background is in coaching Wall Street traders and fund managers to harness and use emotion.

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

‘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, ‘O.K., 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.”


Jacobellis, pictured celebrating a World Cup snowboard cross victory in 2004, has reasserted herself as a favorite heading into these Olympics.

Agence Zoom, via Getty Images

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.”

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