The Surf Channel recently caught up with decorated boardercross athlete Lindsey Jacobellis at the 4th Annual espnW: Women + Sports Summit in Dana Point, California. She is known for charging on a snowboard, and is also able to sneak in a few surf trips between competitions. With a silver medal at the 2006 Torino Olympics, 26 World Cup wins, and nine X Games medals (seven of which are gold) Jacobellis is a clear gold medal contender at the upcoming Sochi Olympics. The multi-talented athlete took some time to talk about coming back after her worst wipeout, what inspires her and stories about facing the challenging waters of Cloudbreak on a recent surf trip to Fiji.
The Surf Channel: How do you prepare for the dangers that come with boardercross racing?
Lindsey Jacobellis: Sometimes you can’t prepare. Boardercross is so unpredictable and has so many uncontrollable variables, including the five people that are now on the course with you. You cannot have any say of what they are going to do. Sometimes they might take you out and crash, and that’s part of it. Sometimes avoiding a crash or just trying to get out ahead, all of these tactics and skills have come into play and never have I once been in the same situation twice.
As you gain experience in the sport, you get better. That is why the older racers are the wiser ones and you can still be acquiring and learning new skills. Avoiding the other people and anticipating their next move, watching other riders and knowing their tactics, knowing their strong and weak points and knowing that it could play out with multiple scenarios like this coming into a turn… You have to be ready for anything. It’s pretty amazing to be able to think like that… Everything halts into slow motion, like in the movies. You have two options and then you choose one – quickly.
Jacobellis: My worst wipeout was during a Jeep King of the Hill Mountain Series race in Sun Valley, with the worst flat lighting ever. You really just couldn’t see any definition in the snow. I was the top qualifying woman, so I was in the first heat. They were fiddling around with camera wires since something was wrong with the feed, while the storm just kept rolling in. The lighting kept getting worse and worse, and I was telling the course directors that they needed to put the blue dye on the course; it was very hard to see. They said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to it,’ and started lining us up.
I was ready to compete, but still without the blue dye on the course. I remember riding the course, doing the doubles with a great lead in front of all the girls. In my mind, I was ready to take the whole overall Jeep King of the Hill title, win the car and all of that. Then, I came into a section at an alarming rate and still couldn’t see. There was this terrifying moment where I wanted to slow down, just a little bit, just to get some sort of control. I go to speed check, and you know when you just catch so quickly because you just can’t feel what you’re actually doing? It’s actually a very terrifying moment; I couldn’t see anything. Suddenly, I crashed.
It was such a violent, quick crash that even when you pause it or try to slow-mo it, it is still super blurry. I scorpioned, which is where the back of your board hits the back of your head. I flipped into the snow and ten seconds later, the rest of the girls came by. I was fighting with the course worker screaming, ‘Don’t unstrap my board because you’ll DQ me!’ I had such a bad concussion. I was so loopy and so out of it. That was definitely my most aggressive, violent wipeout to this day. I had to stay sidelined due to the concussion for a while after that.
Immediately afterwards, they blue dyed the course because they realized it was really bad lighting… [Laughs].
How do you bounce back mentally after a crash like that?
Jacobellis: Knowing that you are capable of completing the task at hand is vital, as well as breaking a course down and analyzing it for what it is. I’ve been racing boardercross for over 16 years and I have no doubt it was the same thing with my knee injury. I had to fully believe that I was strong enough, so it helped to hear the coaching staff and the strength coaches at Park City testing me saying, ‘You are allowed to determine your return back to snow and full sport. You’re strong enough, and you’ll be fine.” Knowing that and being confident is something that carries a lot of clout. If I believed in my recovery, then I was able to return and feel like myself back on the snow.
We hear you charge surfing as well. How was Fiji?
Jacobellis: When I first got to Cloudbreak, it was like triple overhead. There was not a single woman in the water that day. Everyone on the boat basically wanted to go there just to look at it, it’s so intimidating just watching it, to see how much water is moving and how heavy it is. Not to mention the fact that you’re not near land at all. You’re in the middle of the ocean.
We went to other breaks slightly less intense, like Namotu Left, which is a shallower spot and not as much of a throwing wave. We enjoyed some of the other surf breaks, like Swimming Pools, for a couple days.
When the swell started to calm down a little bit five days into the trip, we finally went out to Cloudbreak. The wind was right and that was where the boat was going according to the boat crowd. I was thinking, ‘You know, being a woman, there’s no shame in just sitting on the boat. But then, I thought to myself… “I could go out there. I could just stay on the outside shoulder, maybe catch one. No one would fight me for the small waves.’ Or, ‘I don’t even have to paddle for one and there would still be no shame in that, just to be in the water and say that I paddled around at Cloudbreak was reward enough.’
When I paddled out, there were these amazing sets rolling in that stood up with such great shape. I caught two right away, and as you know, once you catch one wave it’s so addicting… You always want another one, and another, you’re never satisfied. Suddenly, three other guys and I got caught in this rip that brought us way deep into the pocket. I knew I was not in a great spot because I could see where the tower was and I thought maybe I should just paddle back to the boat. I wasn’t too far inside, so nothing was breaking on top of me. I was still in a safe spot, but was paddling by myself out in the middle of the ocean and started worrying about bigger fish and things like that.
It was a steady paddle, slow breathing, not panicking, all the way back. It took me about 25 minutes to get back to the lineup. Their currents were crazy when the tides were changing. I was just stoked to be back next to a couple other surfers. I was looking for a wave to take me closer to the channel so I wouldn’t have to paddle so far. Suddenly, this wave pops up and I saw that no one was on it. ‘I’ll take it! Happy ending!’ I thought. When i dropped in, it turned out to be over ten ft on the face. It felt so massive over my head. I grabbed rail, in a tuck and started to go faster… I love that adrenaline. The feeling of my surfboard holding me up made me feel invincible, like I was flying.
Come to think of it, Mother Nature usually always wins in that circumstance. I looked way down the line and I saw the wave closing out. ‘Oh no! What do I do now?’ I certainly didn’t want it to crash on me, so I got in front of it as it crashed behind me, looking like it was ready to eat me. I let myself fall and I grabbed my board and started tumbling with it. I tried to relax and tell myself I wouldn’t hit the reef. By then, I got caught inside and got really, really scared because the waves kept getting bigger and bigger, and I couldn’t get out. I started waving and yelling to the boat. They didn’t know at first if I was just stoked that I caught that wave, or if I was in trouble. They started to sense that I was panicking. There was a boat from Tavarua that came up and saw that I was struggling and pointed for me to paddle towards shallower waters, but I was so panicked at that moment because I was getting rocked wave after wave, not sure what the boatmen were telling me to do.
After three consecutive waves on the head, pushing me back like those little baby turtles that just can never make it out into the ocean, I thought I was going to get dry docked onto coral. I was starting to get really panicked, without knowing the gravity of the situation. The ocean is so intense and powerful. As I was paddling, a rip current pulled me out into the channel and just like that, I was panic-free. My boat came over and I jumped in, happy to have survived and be okay. I got my waves and it was amazing, I just don’t know that I should be back in that water for a long time.
There’s a rumor that Cloudbreak is going to be added to the World Tour of Surfing. Would you support another girl going out there? I mean, you were the only chick out there at the time.
Jacobellis: At that moment, definitely. There were other days that I did see women out there surfing, but I was too tired. It was a later session in the day and I could not get back in the water to try to surf Cloudbreak. That’s something you have to do with fresh shoulders. I was not about to jump in there, but I saw a couple other girls out there and it’s very refreshing to see that, you know? They were from Hawai’i, so they were a little bit more familiar with that type of wave and I’m very happy that they grew up in that kind of background. I grew up in the snow, so I’m pretty naive to the whole wave situation and I’m still learning. I’m not afraid to drop in on a big wave, but then I get in trouble and the situation of being caught inside and just not understanding how the water is moving is my biggest problem. I hate to admit it, but men are stronger in a lot of things, especially upper body strength. There are times that they are going to be able to out-paddle us in every situation, and it’s hard.
Even in snowboarding, I see the men being so much stronger, and I work just as hard. I can’t have the same times or results due to genetic make up. It doesn’t mean that women can’t surf Cloudbreak. They might be a bit more limited by various conditions, but by all means, if a woman is feeling confident and understanding how everything is working then she should have every right to surf. Guys shoudn’t say that a woman can’t do something. If she can believe that she can do it, then she has the ability to do it.
We’ve been talking a lot about mentorship. What can a mentor do for a young athlete?
Jacobellis: A mentor is very important for any individual, guy or girl, but it is especially important for women. I believe women can be underestimated, especially young women struggling to find who they are and feel good about themselves and comfortable with their body or their image. Every woman has gone through that struggle, especially when magazines tell women how we are ‘supposed to look’ or how athletes are ‘supposed to look’… or what defines a ‘beautiful’ women.
Who were your heros growing up, and who inspired you?
Jacobellis: My mom and dad instilled a lot of inspiration in me. They’re both so driven and expected a lot out of us, and always pushed us to be the best we could possibly be. My brother and I really took that to heart. My brother was super competitive with his friends and I just tried to tag along and hang out with them, even though he would be like, ‘No, that’s not happening.’
When I started getting into winter sports and watching the Olympics, I really loved watching Picabo Street. First of all, her name sold us all. And then, you watch her race and she was amazing. I told myself, ‘I want to go fast! I want to break records!’ My parents were supportive, telling me, ‘You can do it! You just have to work for it, and we believe in you. If you want to go to the Olympics, we see it happening in you.’ That was when I was around 11-years-old, so I figured if my parents were backing me on this, it could be a possibility.
Luckily, the sport I fell into and became so passionate about was named an Olympic sport in 2003, making its debut in 2006. I was 18 at the time when I would be attending my first Olympics, and that was just so amazing at such a young age. I look back on how young I was as an individual and how that effected me then, personally and emotionally. It’s been a huge part of how I’ve evolved as an individual and who I’ve become today.
Olympic snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis is a Stratton, Vermont local. Photo courtesy of Bolle
What do you think television does for the sport of snowboarding?
Jacobellis: Snowboarding has done really well on TV. People love watching the sport because it’s exciting, even watching the judge defense… All the acrobatics, the flips, the spins… Everything has gone to such an extreme level, even on the women’s side. It’s amazing to see how we’ve progressed over the last 10 years, and I’m very fortunate to be in the sport that longs to see that progression. It’s very rewarding.
What could television do for the sport of surfing? Do you think it has that same potential?
Jacobellis: Absolutely! The difference with action sports like us compared to soccer or some other arena sport is that it’s easy to get a massive crowd to go watch soccer and charge for the ticket, charge for the food and everything else. We love chasing waves and we’re on the mountain building courses to race on, we have to keep everything almost free and so much more accessible because it’s so much more expensive to travel. Waves are unpredictable as is snow, so we can’t really account for those. A soccer field, most of the time, it’s going to be there, weather permitting.
X Games does a great job, because everyone has to travel there and they realize that, so they provide free transportation and have tons of swag at brand booths to collect all the stickers and foam fingers, and all that free stuff to make it an experience that children and family members remember. It’s not only about watching action sports, but it’s also important to connect with the fans. So, it’s amazing that we can have that experience and connection, but you can see where the disconnect is and that’s why it’s hard to build that big crowd, because of the geographic location of it; it’s not localized. X Games does a great job of bringing the sport to people at home, in order for the public to realize what amazing sports these are. They use the aerial cable cam so you can watch the entire race through. Halfpipe has those crazy angles that make them look like they’re going even bigger and you can see their entire rotation. It looks so wonderful and fluid throughout the whole process giving the sport such grace, and especially in snowboarding, a freedom and way of expression.