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Fearless and Favored

Times Staff Writer

Lindsey Jacobellis versus the world.

That’s what it has come down to for the blond bombshell from Stratton Vt., the term in this case describing her win-at-all-costs style in a snowboard slalom during which riders careen shoulder to shoulder in a jump-filled dash to the finish.

Jacobellis, 20, is the lone entry on the U.S. women’s team, so the nation’s hope for a gold medal in this new Olympic event rests solely on her shoulders.

Her success has been such -- she’s the reigning world champion, the 2005 overall Grand Prix champion and three-time X Games champion -- that anything but gold will be a disappointment.

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If that’s not enough pressure, there’s more at stake than mere fulfillment of an Olympic dream. Corporate sponsors have taken a liking to this fearless athlete who, with her curly locks and pretty face, has the looks to match her talent.

Jacobellis, in fact, has already experienced the corporate world, having signed endorsement deals with Visa, the primary sponsor of the Turin Games; Dunkin’ Donuts, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and Paul Mitchell hair products.

“I think, because the way the sport is going, if she doesn’t do as well as we think she will, the opportunities will still be out there because snowboarding as a sport is growing and growing,” says Jacobellis’ agent, Josh Schwartz.

“But on the flip side, if she wins a gold medal in the new event and she’s America’s darling, then the upside is tremendous.”

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Translation: If things go well, she could soon be pulling in a high six-figure salary.

Schwartz, a partner in an agency, has been working with Jacobellis, with the Olympics in mind, for three years. But perhaps a trip in 2006 to Bardonecchia in the Italian Alps has been her destiny for a lot longer than that.

Jacobellis spent her early childhood as a skier and had only dabbled in snowboarding until 1998, when the family vacation home burned, destroying the skis. Older brother Ben, who had taken up snowboarding, persuaded the parents to replace the skis with snowboards and Lindsey had no choice but to comply.

“I think that things happen for a reason,” she says. “I may have taken up snowboarding anyway, but it might have taken a lot longer. Or it might not have happened at all.”

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“Benny” Jacobellis, as Lindsey calls him, was also at least partially responsible for igniting the competitive fire in his sister’s 5-foot-5 frame.

They were raised in the remote farming community of Roxbury, Conn. Houses were far apart, so after school they had only each other to play with. Ben, being a boy and five years older, played hard. Lindsey soon found herself playing just as hard.

Everything became a fierce competition that got “kind of mean at times,” she says.

This spiritedness spilled onto the slopes and, with their new snowboards, the Jacobellis siblings entered the Friday night boardercross series at Stratton Mountain.

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Lindsey had to compete against boys because there was no bracket for young girls. It was scary at first, she says, because no boy wanted to lose to a girl. But it further molded her character and eventually she was beating the boys.

They referred to her as Lucky Lindsey, a nickname she still enjoys, but luck was not a factor; it was the mental toughness she had developed to complement her considerable athletic prowess.

She enrolled at Stratton Mountain School, a college prep facility that doubles as a skiing and snowboarding academy, and although she couldn’t have known it at the time, that put her on course for the Turin Games.

Ross Hindman, her former coach at the school, used one word to describe the pupil, athletically and academically: “driven.”

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At 15, she won the boardercross competition -- boardercross is the same as snowboard cross -- at the U.S. Open in Stratton, on a steep and icy course so potentially dangerous that nearly half of her rivals chose not to race.

At 16, she claimed the overall title in the Junior World Championships in New Zealand. At 17 she won her first Winter X Games gold and graduated from Stratton Mountain School, receiving the Founder’s Award for academic and athletic excellence. She was accepted at the University of Vermont, where she remains on deferral.

At 18, she competed in her first World Cup event, taking second in the halfpipe competition in Chile. At her second X Games, she became the first athlete to compete in three snowboarding disciplines, taking first in boardercross, fourth in halfpipe and 13th in slopestyle.

During another World Cup competition in Japan she won both boardercross events and the halfpipe competition to become the first snowboarder from any country to sweep an event in two disciplines.

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Last year she won the snowboard cross World Championships at Whistler, Canada, and was also the U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix overall champion.

Also last year, she won her third consecutive X Games gold medal, which was testament to her inner strength. Ben’s board was swept out by another competitor during a sharp turn midway down the course. His head slammed hard onto the ice and he lay motionless for more than a minute.

Lindsey was atop the course in the gate, out of sight, awaiting the start of the women’s race, and she assumed the delay had been caused by injury to her brother because she had heard the other racers’ names called as they crossed the finish line. The delay lasted several minutes, so she knew it was serious.

Ben was whisked away on a stretcher and taken to Aspen Valley Hospital, where he would later be found to have suffered a moderate concussion. Lindsey went on to win her race and afterward told reporters, “I knew Benny wouldn’t want me to back down or be worried at all because he gets mad at me even if I just ask him if he’s OK.”

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Since then, her focus has been on qualifying for the U.S. team in halfpipe and snowboard cross. She fell just short of that goal but qualified for the snowboard cross team in September.

Since then she’s been training with the men on the team, acting the same way she used to with her brother on the farm, or with the boys during Friday night boardercross.

Says Seth Wescott, the reigning men’s world champion, “Lindsey has just been pushed for so many years. Her brother is an amazing snowboarder in his own right. And over the years she’s gravitated toward chasing the guys around, and that has pushed her to a level beyond where any of the other women of the world are right now.”

Thus the biggest question remaining -- one that will be answered Feb. 17: Can she push herself beyond these women one more time and reach the next level, that of Olympic champion?

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