James Lawton: Gillings centre stage at hottest ticket in town
Lindsey Vonn, the superwoman skier of these Olympics may be the centre of attention today when she flies downhill, but on a mountain 100 miles south of the classic run last night, Britain's Zoe Gillings was in the middle of a fight for another kind of stardom.
She was challenging to be the queen of snowboarding, which not so long ago would have put her on the outer fringe of what some might like to call serious sport.
Not any longer — not, anyway, without the risk of being charged with missing the single most astonishing surge of popularity being enjoyed at these 21st Olympics, by the snowboarders and their freestyle skiing cousins.
Any doubts about this have been swept away in the last 48 hours. On Monday night, 22,000 fans came to watch 22-year-old Alexandre Bilodeau receive the gold medal he won in the moguls on Sunday, Canada's first on home soil in three Olympics, and there was scarcely less euphoria when his compatriot Mike Robertson picked up silver in the snowboard cross.
Last night with Canadian lle Ricker favourite in a field which had Gillings ranked 10th, there was certainly no question about the hottest ticket in town.
For the 24-year-old Gillings from the Isle of Man, it is the confirmation of an instinct that came the first time she went onto a snowboard course.
“I've always been competitive and played most sports,” she said before going into last night's action. “When I was a kid my parents took me skiing often. They had a house in the French Alps and it was lovely but the moment I did snowboarding I knew that skiing was something in my past.
“Some people think that snowboard cross is a bit crazy, but it has every element of competition you could ever want. It's fast and it’s full of tricks and challenges.”
She might also have mentioned the disasters. The biggest of her career came off the course five years ago when she jumped over a car in an sponsor's advert. She smashed her foot so badly a doctor reported that the X-ray made it resemble a “bag of crisps”. He added that she had probably broken every bone in her foot and that she would have to do something else with her life.
“I just couldn't consider that. In a way snowboarding had become my life,” Gillings added.
In snowboarding catastrophe is simply a matter of degree.
On the eve of last night's battle, when groups of four fought their way through qualifying, quarter-finals, semis and the moment of final, and frenetic, truth, the owner of the sport's most sensational mishap said that she had fought her way through the greatest trauma of her career — and was ready to reclaim the gold that most of the cognoscenti of her sport believe she threw away in Turin four years ago.
American Lindsey Jacobellis had the field at her mercy when she performed a trick — the ‘method grab’ — which would have been a winning flourish at the end of a brilliant performance. Instead she wiped out.
“It's the thing with snowboarding,” said Jacobellis this week. “All of a sudden you feel like, 'All right, I'm in the clear and then you're smushed (sic) like a mushroom in Mario.”
Smushed like Mario is a reference by the 24-year-old Jacobellis, who with her blonde ringlets still looks remarkably like a candidate for Queen of the Proms at her local high school, to a video game which has a plot featuring largely a series of little mushroom men being periodically squished.
It is also routine in snowboarding. Jacobellis, though, was emphatic that last night she could ride through — and expunge — the Torino trauma.
“When it happened I knew I was going be questioned about it like a zillion times,” she says. “So that's what I'm rolling with. Maybe I was a little overhyped by the Olympics back in Turin. I was pretty young then. You don't want sport to take control of you that early and at that age because then what do you have to look forward to? Now I have to look forward to how much I've raised the level of snowboard cross and I have definitely gone into history for that.
“But, anyway, what is a loss? Is it the worst thing that could possibly happen? I was able to recover and get a silver medal. No, you have to put everything in perspective and be thankful and appreciative of where you are and what you've accomplished.”
Such is the ruling philosophy of the sport Zoe Gillings was engaging at the highest level here last night.