VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Snowboarding might be one of the coolest and hippest sports at the Winter Olympics but it is also one of the cruelest.
The sunglasses and bandanas give the impression of a laid back sport, but snowboarding is punishing and dangerous and the margins between success and disaster are as minuscule as the razor-thin edges of their boards.
High speed falls and injuries are common in snowboarding, even at the elite level, as you might expect from a sport where the competitors basically launch themselves off a mountain.
That alone ensures it attracts athletes with a peculiar mix of sheer courage and loopy madness, the perfect combination for a sport the International Olympic Committee hopes will help the Games and appeal to the next generation.
There is a deception about snowboarders that is not hard to spot. Many sport baggy pants, goatees, tattoos and lip and nose piercings. Theirs is a life of trash-talking and hip-hop music, far removed from other more traditional Alpine sports.
Yet for all the groovy looks and devil-may-care approach, it is also a sport that can be unforgiving. Rarely was this better illustrated than during Tuesday’s women’s snowboard cross final, which was looming as a classic showdown between Canada’s Maelle Ricker and Lindsey Jacobellis of the United States.
Jacobellis could have won the gold medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics but, with the entire field at her mercy, she wiped out after attempting a radical mid-air move on the last jump.
She pocketed the silver medal and spent the past four years explaining herself to people from outside the sport unable to understand the instinctive need she felt to ignore the safe approach for the chance to put on a show.
Jacobellis was the favorite to win gold in Vancouver but luck was again against her as she was disqualified in the semi-final when she lost her balance and went out of bounds.
Unable to qualify for the final, she paused for a moment to contemplate her loss before speeding down the mountain alone, defiantly performing another maneuver on her last jump.
“I just felt like doing a truck driver grab,” she explained. “I wanted to show them I still have a passion for the sport.”
Ricker also crashed in the final at Turin four years ago but remembers nothing about it as she hit the snow so hard she was concussed and had to be airlifted from the course.
The signs were ominous early on Tuesday when she crashed in the first round of qualifying, but 31-year-old Ricker showed she has clearly learned from past mistakes.
Ricker, currently ranked atop the World Cup standings, made it to the quarter-finals after a smoother, safer performance in her second run and never looked back. She went on to win a gold medal, becoming the first Canadian woman to accomplish the feat on home soil.
“Coming home from Turin I was already thinking about what I had to do to get here today. That was a huge motivating factor,” said Ricker.
“It was such a crazy day. I had a rough start and had to refocus, but in the end everything went my way.”
Editing by Frank Pingue