Meghan Rutledge celebrates early, crashes: Remember Lindsey Jacobellis?

An 18-year-old Moto-X racer named Meghan Rutledge lost a gold medal at the X Games this weekend when, leading the race, she celebrated prematurely, pumping a fist during the final jump. She crashed on landing and finished out of the medals. I saw the video on The Big Lead.

This reminded me of a similar incident in the 2006 Winter Olympics, when snowboard cross racer Lindsey Jacobellis did essentially the same thing, with a similar result, though Jacobellis was able to recover in time to win the silver medal. Another difference is that, at least according to the video, Rutledge appeared to have been crestfallen, while Jacobellis, at least publicly, shrugged off her error, saying she was just having fun, and that’s what snowboarding’s supposed to be all about.

I wrote about Jacobellis’ crash for Salon, and that section of my June 21, 2006, column is pasted below. I would just link directly to it, but Salon’s permalinks from that time don’t work anymore.

A few days earlier, I had written about how the X Games athletes, including Jacobellis, had brought a breath of fresh air to the Olympics: “They bring their laid-back culture to the Games, downplaying the importance of medals at every opportunity, and they present a refreshing contrast to the Type-A zealots who make up so much of the elite athlete population.”

I wonder if that’s less true now, seven years later. Rutledge certainly didn’t seem to be shrugging off her defeat in Jacobellisian fashion. But that might just be the difference between two individual personalities. I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from it. I just wonder, and that’s all I’m going to do, because I find X Games-type sports to be boring, so I’m not interested enough in the answer to research it.

Here’s what I said about Lindsey Jacobellis in 2006. Note how the basis of the column is the old-school publishing model that had me waiting from Friday until Tuesday to write again:

So I think Lindsey Jacobellis is my kid. I’m going to get one of those DNA tests.

I think the American snowboard cross silver medalist is my own spawn because she created the most talked-about moment of the 2006 Olympics mere hours after I’d published my column Friday morning, with my next one not due until Tuesday. Thanks a lot, kiddo.

This is exactly what my kids do. I mean my other kids. They have a knack for falling ill at 5:01 p.m. on the Friday of holiday weekends. And the longer the holiday, the weirder the illness and the more necessary a doctor.

On Labor Day or Memorial Day weekend, they’ll just get an ear infection, maybe a little stomach flu. But give them a four- or five-day weekend and they really go to work. Green spots, Linda Blair cranial 360s, spontaneous combustion.

Jacobellis — Mother and I call her “Linds” now — only had a three-day weekend, so she didn’t really go for it, as the boarders say. She didn’t declare for the NFL draft or move to Washington and change her name to the Lindsey Nationals.

But her last-minute showboat that cost her a gold medal — if you don’t know what I’m talking about at this point, I’d like to borrow your copy of the current Cave and Garden Monthly — was immediately the talk of the Olympics, except in this column, and will go down as one of Turin’s signature moments.

On the same day, Sweden beat the United States in the greatest upset in the history of women’s hockey, and it took a back seat to Jacobellis blowing a gold medal in a sport that most people had never heard of a week earlier.

As we’ve seen in the chatter that’s gone on over the last four days, Jacobellis’ fall will be a cautionary tale for some, an illustration of what happens when you count your chickens, when you try to show up beaten foes, when you self-aggrandize.

For others, it will be an inspiring example of youthful exuberance trumping ambition and competitiveness, of living life to the fullest, consequences be damned, of eating dessert before dinner, painting your nails with white-out for the prom.

Lindsey Jacobellis grabbing her snowboard and falling has become one of those Rorschach tests. What you think of it says a lot about who you are. What I think of it is she must be my kid.

As I sat around over the three-day weekend, not writing columns, listening to my children sniffle and cough, I was amused watching the commentariat and the bloggers try and fail to come up with parallels from sports history for Jacobellis’ screwup.

Leon Lett’s premature touchdown celebration in the 1992-season Super Bowl was cited most often, but everyone seemed to agree there’d never been anything quite like what Jacobellis did, costing herself victory by showboating.

Everybody forgot about Billy Conn.

Conn, the light heavyweight champion, gave up his belt and challenged Joe Louis for the heavyweight title in 1941. Conn outboxed the bigger champ for the first 12 rounds of the 15-round bout and had a big lead. All he had to do was keep doing what he’d been doing for three more rounds and he’d win the heavyweight championship.

But he went for the knockout in the 13th. Not enough to win, he had to do it with flair. Get some style points. Sound familiar? Louis put him to sleep before the next bell.

I’m sure that story’s been used to warn many a youngster not to get cocky, but I’ll always remember Conn being asked on the fight’s 50th anniversary what he’d do in that 13th round if he had it to do all over again. I’m paraphrasing from memory: “If I had it to do again, I’d probably do the same thing,” he said. “What the hell’s the difference?”

I love that attitude. Why not go for it? The good thing about being Lindsey Jacobellis’ dad — I think — is that I won’t have to teach her to think that way.

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