KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA – Eva Samkova slapped a camera atop her helmet before the women’s Olympic snowboardcross finals on Sunday, hoping to give TV viewers a better grasp of her sport’s unique mix of speed and chaos.
Samkova provided the speed.
It’s the chaos that was missing — at least in front of her.
Riding a board that appeared propelled by booster rockets, the 20-year-old from the Czech Republic sprinted to Olympic gold with three wire-to-wire victories. They probably looked pretty boring from her helmet camera’s point of view, what with nothing in front of her but a softening course and a raucous crowd that roared in appreciation of her dominance.
Her body rock steady in an event that again claimed perennial gold medal contender Lindsey Jacobellis among its victims, Samkova credited the wax techs that turned her board into a lightning bolt and a form that didn’t falter as the madness piled up behind her.
“It’s just physics, that’s all,” Samkova said with a laugh.
And Groundhog Day for Jacobellis.
The eight-time X Games winner gave away gold in Turin eight years ago when a botched grab near the end of the finals cost her the top spot on the podium. The greatest racer in the sport’s history failed to make it out of the semifinals in Vancouver and her quest to fill the one hole left on her peerless resume ended in Sochi’s semifinals.
Well ahead of the other five riders at a slushy Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, the 28-year-old from Park City, Utah, lost her balance coming out of a jump and washed out in one of the final turns. She recovered to win the consolation final, though it served as little solace.
“There are worse things in life than not winning. A lot worse,” Jacobellis said. “And, of course, it’s very unfortunate this didn’t work out for me. I trained very hard for this moment. It doesn’t come together for who knows what reason.”
Samkova’s win was the first podium finish in the Olympics by a Czech snowboarder. Dominique Maltais became the first multiple-medal winner in women’s snowboardcross when she finished a distant second. Chloe Trespeuch of France earned bronze on a day that featured both the beauty and the danger of snowboarding’s version of NASCAR.
Barely 24 hours after Russian racer Maria Komissarova severely injured her spine while training on the same slope, American Jackie Hernandez sustained a concussion when she smacked her head after catching an edge during qualifying. The 21-year-old was treated and released, but barred from competing in the elimination rounds.
Hernandez’s accident came only minutes after Helene Olafsen of Norway hurt her knee near the top of the course and needed to be taken off the mountain on a stretcher.
Such injuries are commonplace in snowboardcross, though they typically happen when riders racing six-abreast are darting over the series of jumps and banked turns.
The supremacy Samkova showcased is far more rare. She was the quickest in qualifying by nearly a full second and only appeared to get faster as temperatures soared above 10 degrees C.
The flag of her home country was painted above her lip like a patriotic mustache for “luck,” but none was required. In each of her races, Samkova held the lead by the time the field reached the first tabletop feature and the margin only grew wider during her runs.
“My coach told me that will be best thing I can do, just be in front of them,” Samkova said.
Against a deep field that included Jacobellis, Maltais and defending Olympic champion Maelle Ricker, Samkova drained any real drama out of the fight for gold. She peeked over her shoulder after clearing the last jump in the final then thrust her arms aloft in triumph.
By then Jacobellis was recovering from another Olympic disappointment, Maltais was but a speck in Samkova’s rearview mirror and Ricker was done after wrecking in the quarterfinals.
“She was running very well today,” Trespeuch said. “She was way ahead of us. She really wants it and she did a good job.”
The raucous celebration included hugs all around and Samkova trashing the board that led to the greatest victory of her career. She launched it toward the stand for the flower ceremony and followed with a guttural scream that would make a professional wrestler proud.
“It was crazy,” Samkova said. “It was first time I was happy like this in the finish.”
She might have suspected her moment was coming. Samkova was runnerup behind Jacobellis in the X Games last month, just weeks after winning World Cup events in Andorra and Austria.
The momentum carried over to Russia, where the rider who arrived in a golden jacket on Sunday morning had a medal to match by the afternoon.