L’important dans la vie ce n’est point le triomphe, mais le combat, l’essentiel ce n’est pas d’avoir vaincu mais de s’être bien battu.

“The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

– Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics
(credit for mentioning this quote goes to Bob Timmermann)

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When Andruw Jones smiled after striking out for the gazillionth time with the Dodgers, it angered fans. The smile was pretty clearly a coping mechanism — no one would think that Jones was happy about striking out — but it roiled fans because it was pretty clear Jones hadn’t done nearly his best in preparing for the 2008 season after signing a huge contract with the Dodgers. With his smile, Jones helped reinforce the feeling fans had that he just didn’t care, that he was just in it for the money.

When Lindsey Jacobellis did the snowboarder’s equivalent of a smile Tuesday, it was something else entirely.

In Vancouver, after four more years of intense preparation since a mistake she made cost her an Olympic gold medal in Italy, Jacobellis went for the gold again. And it didn’t go well for her. After some jockeying for position in the women’s snowboard cross semifinals, she lost balance and made contact with a gate, disqualifying her.

“She made a helpless gesture and put her hands on her race helmet, having to make the long trip down the course,” wrote Lisa Dillman of the Times.

None of us are in position to evaluate her disappointment, but it’s safe to say that she felt it more personally and intimately than anyone else.

At that point, Jacobellis had a choice, conscious or unconscious. The battle was lost. Should she bury her head, rend her garments? Or should she celebrate all the work she had put in and her sheer enjoyment of her sport? She chose the latter — at which point Bill Plaschke of the Times chastised Jacobellis for not being sufficiently ashamed.

… Remember how four years ago in Turin, Italy, Jacobellis blew a gold medal when she attempted a trick on her final jump, eating snow and finishing second? Remember how she was criticized for putting snowboard style ahead of gold-medal substance?

Well, on Tuesday, she finished with another trick, clutching her board during the final jump of her disqualified run, finishing her eventually fifth-place Olympic performance with something called a “truck-driver grab.”

Eighteen wheels of defiance.

“Since everyone was waiting for me to come down, they’d be watching, I figured I would have some fun, show them I still have a deep passion for the sport,” she said later. “If you haven’t snowboarded before, maybe you should, because it’s pretty fun.”

Fun? The world’s most decorated female snowboard cross racer fails to win a gold medal twice in two Olympics and still insists on showing everyone she’s having fun?

In case it’s not clear, Plaschke wasn’t being sarcastic. If you read the rest of the column, as I did incredulously, Plaschke is questioning the gall of an athlete who wants to be happy — even in the face of profound disappointment.

Jacobellis wasn’t smiling with a big gut and a .158 batting average. She was smiling after putting out her absolute best effort and then not having the breaks go her way. If Sandy Koufax strikes you out in the 1965 World Series, you get angry over the strikeout — just like Jacobellis did. But if you did all you could, how much more upset are you supposed to be?

Do you think Jacobellis comes anywhere near the Olympics if winning didn’t matter at all to her? No one was punished more by Jacobellis’ failure to win a gold medal Tuesday than Jacobellis herself. Plaschke moves on to a new sport today, but for Jacobellis, this is her life. He is not qualified to tell her how she should feel.

On top of that, Plaschke is thunderstruck that Jacobellis did not want to hold interviews with the press who, in Plaschke’s own words, “ripped her four years ago, folks who she believes will never understand the culture of her game.” This one doesn’t exactly belong in “Unsolved Mysteries.”

Plaschke went on Twitter this morning with a series of generalizations that confirm his not-so-occasional myopia. A sample: “Male figure skaters are, like, great athletes who squabble like teenage girls…Women figure skaters are divas who fight like men.” Sheesh.

He acknowledges in one breath, “Sports columnists here are strangest creatures of all…We analyze people we don’t know playing sports we don’t understand.” In the next, he writes about how its his task to judge them.  He doesn’t seem to connect that if he’s not capable of judging them, then maybe he just shouldn’t.

Lindsey Jacobellis is my new role model. She threw herself into competition at a level few of us could possibly emulate, sacrificed so that she might be the best, and when that failed to yield the ultimate prize, instead of curling up in the fetal position, she had the self-esteem and presence of mind to appreciate the greatness of the effort and the joy of what she was part of, win or lose. I want my kids to be like her.