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Olympic Snowboarding

Racers balance speed, safety in rough-and-tumble snowboard cross

Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Snowboard cross riders must contend with obstacles, and each other, throughout a steep and twisty course.

KRASNAYA POLYANA -- Nate Holland is 35 years old and taking part in his third Olympics. This time around the redhead from Truckee, Calif. will be competing in the snowboard cross event with screws in the left clavicle he snapped in a training crash in Austria two months ago. “I undershot a jump, hit the knuckle, bounced through the flat,” he recounts. “Knocked myself out in that wreck.”

This was an hour or so before we were reminded of how much worse it might have been. While Holland chatted with SI.com early Saturday afternoon, the Russian skier Maria Komissarova lay in a hospital in the valley below. During training for skicross earlier that morning -- the two disciplines use the same serpentine course at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park -- the 23-year-old from St. Petersburg crashed coming off a triple jump going into the first banked turn. She was taken by ambulance to City Hospital No. 8 here, where doctors operated on her dislocated spine.

Like Holland, Lindsey Jacobellis also competes in snowboard cross. The star-crossed Jacobellis is the American who infamously squandered a gold medal in Turin eight years ago, etching her name in Olympic lore in the Perils of Premature Celebration category. Surely you remember how Jacobellis caught an edge while attempting a celebratory “Method Air,” coughing up a generous lead and having to settle for silver? Jacobellis, for her part, has never been allowed to forget.

She is not seeking redemption in Sochi, and rejects the premise that she’s committed some sin that needs redeeming. Yes, it was a mistake, she allows, “but I was 20.” Who among us didn’t make a bad decision or two at that age? She just happened to make hers with the world watching.

Four years ago, on a foggy day at Cypress Mountain in British Columbia, Jacobellis traded paint with another rider and went veering off course, her Olympics over. Her second attempt at non-redemption arrives tomorrow. This time around, she’s sneaked up on the field. Her hair, once Suzy Chapstick-blond, is a light brown. After a pair of knee surgeries sidelined her for 22 months, she rallied to win at the X Games last month.

“She’s worked her ass off to get where she is,” says fellow snowboard cross competitor Alex Deibold. “Her snowboarding’s as good as it’s ever been. Watching her on video, talking to her after training, I’d say everything is moving in the right direction.” Then again, he feels compelled to add, “It’s boardercross, so anything can happen.”

Athletes can train their tails off for four years then have their Olympics ended by some dunce trying to make an ill-advised pass. More so than in most Olympic sports, the athletes are subject to the cruel whims and vagaries of fate. “Most?” says Team USA’s Nick Baumgartner, a former state champion high school wrestler. “More so than any. Let’s call it what it is. But that’s why I do it. That’s what draws me to it. It’s dangerous out there. It’s crazy out there. And that’s the rush I’m looking for.”

Snowboard cross is 45 seconds of downhill Darwinism: six riders jockeying for position down a serpentine, obstacle-strewn course designed to comfortably accommodate, say, two of them.

Holland’s pithier description: “It’s a bar brawl.”

Much like life, snowboard cross isn’t fair, and Holland accepts that. What he has a harder time accepting is a course layout that’s needlessly dangerous. After his practice runs on Saturday, he leaned against a fence and voiced some concerns. While the course was “running really well” -- particularly when one considered the tropical conditions -- “there’s a couple spots where we’re going too fast for the features. We’re overshooting.”

It’s important to note here that those two “spots” did (ital)not(end ital) include the triple jump where Komissarova lost control and broke her back. Holland was talking about features further down the course, at what the American team called Bank 4 and Bank 5. Riders were having to tap the brakes -- “speed check,” as they say -- before launching off these jumps. Even then, Holland reported, they were cominf close to missing the landing zones.

On race day -- the guys go on Monday -- with adrenaline coursing and medals on the line, riders will be less inclined to tap the brakes. Which means that some of them would be launched off the course, as Holland puts it, “like throwing a cat out the window.”

If this were the X Games, Holland opined, fixing the jumps would be a matter of making a couple of phone calls. But because Olympic snowboarding events fall under the purview of the International Ski Federation (FIS) -- a bone in the craw of ‘boarders since 1998 -- even so simple a task as modifying a jump entails an exercise in bureaucracy and politics. While a majority of riders sought the changes, a few coaches opposed them, “and that’s where you get the gridlock,” said Holland. “It’s like frickin’ Congress.”

Just as Congress surprises us, every so often, by passing an actual bill, good news awaited Holland by the end of the day. After meeting with coaches, FIS officials agreed to take some of the “compression” out of the turn at Bank 4, and to move the jump itself back a couple meters. The jump at Bank 5 was also shaved down.

The gruesome injury suffered by Komissarova will raise questions about the safety of the course. Challenging though it was, the triple jump where the Russian fell had not been a problem area, at least for Team USA’s riders, according to snowboard cross coach Peter Foley.

Give FIS credit, and props to the people working on the course. As they did in the wake of complaints about the slopestyle layout, officials heard riders’ complaints and concerns and acted on them. “This is just the nature” of designing a vast course, says Foley. “It’s very rare the designer nails it the first time. It’s just expected that you’ll have to make adjustments.”

At 2:00 a.m. ET on Sunday, Jacobellis will come hurtling down the course on her seeding run. Scores of journalists will take the bus up to the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park to write about the girl whose showboating cost her first place. But Jacobellis, now crowding 30, has long since put that screw-up into perspective. The terribly sad events of Saturday will help everyone else find some perspective, as well.