- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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SOCHI, Russia -- Trevor Jacob is a quitter. And that, as much as his preternatural gliding ability, incredible air awareness and ability to navigate traffic while traveling 50 mph down a monster snowboardcross course, is why he just might become the youngest and least-experienced SBX racer to win Olympic gold during Monday's competition at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.
Let me explain.
The first memory most folks in the snowboard industry have of Jacob, 20, is watching him compete in halfpipe or slopestyle and wondering, "Who is this kid?"
After moving with his parents from Malibu to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., at the age of 9, six years after he started snowboarding, Jacob entered his first slopestyle contest and won. At 13, he became the youngest halfpipe finalist ever at the U.S. Open of Snowboarding, an event with so much cachet that most of this year's Olympians will make the supreme effort to stumble out from beneath their Olympic hangovers to compete in it in March.
In Malibu, Jacob was a regular at the local surf breaks and skate parks, a talented surfer, skateboarder and BMXer who built a reputation on being the kid who would try anything, and was good at it all. But when he moved to Mammoth Lakes, snowboarding took over and the other sports began to take a backseat.
"I thought all the sports were so cool," says Jacob. "But when I got into snowboarding, the rest fell off."
That was partially Jacob's doing, and partially the result of coaches and sponsors steering him in the direction they believed was best for him. In the halfpipe, Jacob was considered to be "the next big thing." And for good reason: His talent and fearlessness were obvious. But major sponsors never materialized. And despite sporadic success, neither did elite contest results or X Games invitations.
"I never had many sponsors because they didn't know what to do with me," says Jacob. "People felt like they had to push me into one sport, but I have a true love for everything, so I decided not to focus just on one and kept progressing in everything."
That irked sponsors who knew Jacob had the ability to win consistently, were he to channel his energy into one sport. In 2010, feeling burned out on the freestyle world, he toyed with a few World Cup snowboardcross races.
As a member of the U.S. Snowboarding rookie halfpipe team, he was still finishing in the top five at Grand Prix and Dew Tour contests, and continued to until 2012, but he was no longer inspired to throw the same tricks on the same walls of the same halfpipes. He realized being the best halfpipe rider was never really his dream, anyway. And although slopestyle allowed for more creativity and expression than halfpipe, he wasn't feeling the passion there, either. So he walked away.
In the summer of 2012, he and a friend spent a month skateboarding, train hopping and hitchhiking cross-country. He rode his BMX bike, surfed with friends and progressed his skateboarding during a stop at Pennsylvania's Camp Woodward. For the first time in a long while, away from the pressure and conformity of the competition circuit, he was having fun again. Then he went to Oregon on a skate trip and ran into U.S. Snowboarding coach Mike Jankowski, his former halfpipe coach.
"It'd been floating in my mind for a few years to really try boardercross, and here was the time to finally make it happen," Jacob says.
He told Jankowski he needed a change and asked if he would introduce him to the SBX coaches. Within three months, Jacob was training with the U.S. team at their summer camp in New Zealand.
"It was a perfect opportunity for him," says snowboardcross head coach Peter Foley. "We had a good training course, a small group and a race at the end. Some of the younger guys were upset we brought him to camp. He hadn't done anything in the sport. But they certainly can't talk now."
At that camp, Jacob was wild and rough around the edges and didn't fit in with everyone on the team. He had bleached hair, his last name tattooed across his back and he didn't talk much. When he did, he spoke filter-free. But his speed and talent were obvious.
In his riding, Foley saw a natural gliding ability he'd seen in only one other rider in his career: multisport legend Shaun Palmer, who attempted a comeback in snowboardcross in hopes of making the 2014 team. Jacob reminded several riders of Palmer, both in his natural ability and affinity for multiple action sports and his disregard for what others thought about him.
"To this day, Palmer is still the best flat-out glider in the world," Foley says. "Trevor also had that from the start."
At the end of camp, the then-18-year-old Jacob was beating some of the best men in the world in time trials and soaked in teammates' advice like a sponge. At practices, two-time Olympic gold medalist Seth Wescott gave him tips on pack racing, strategy and starts. Eight-time X Games gold medalist Lindsey Jacobellis helped him with his turns and bought him meat pies.
"Trevor has a lot of raw talent and takes instruction well," Jacobellis says. "In training, he was contending with our guys and making minimal mistakes. If you told him, 'You did this and that's what killed your speed,' he would immediately fix it and apply it to the next race. It was only a matter of time until those skills came together."
At the Continental Cup at the end of that 2012 camp, Jacob finished second and earned the FIS points he needed to enter a World Cup and begin his run toward Sochi. "The coaches decided to give me a discretionary spot in a race in Austria in December," Jacob says.
But in mid-November, he found himself back home in Mammoth Lakes and bored. He filled his days skating and riding BMX, and when he heard one of his childhood friends, pro skateboarder Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins, had married action sports icon Travis Pastrana, one of two athletes he grew up idolizing -- the other, not surprisingly, was Palmer -- he decided to send her a text.
"I said, 'Congrats, this is great,'" Jacob says. "And I said, 'You know I like to do all these sports, so if you ever need anybody on the Nitro Circus [an international action sports touring show headed by Pastrana], let me know.'"
What's that they say about luck existing at the intersection of opportunity and preparedness?
The next day, Lyn-Z texted back to say two athletes in the show had been injured and her husband was in desperate need of a replacement. "We need you tomorrow," she said. The next day was Thanksgiving, and Jacob was scheduled to leave for his race in Austria four days later.
"But I'd been waiting for this my whole life," Jacob says. So he drove to Los Angeles that night and boarded a flight to join the Nitro Circus the next morning. "I called Peter on the way to the airport and said, 'Sorry. I'm not coming to the race. I'm going to perform with the Nitro Circus.'"
For the next two and a half months, Jacob toured Europe and New Zealand with the crew, dropping into the Giganta Ramp, the show's version of the Mega Ramp, on a skateboard, BMX bike and tricycle, and sometimes even swapping rides midrun. That's a trick he invented the first day he arrived in Europe for the tour.
"First show off the plane, he says he has an idea," Pastrana says. "He drops in on a BMX bike, has another guy toss him a skateboard in the air, ditches the bike and grabs the skateboard midair. He hopped off the bike, finger flipped the skateboard, landed on it and rode away. None of us had ever thought to do that. There aren't many people who are instant fits with the Nitro crew. On day one, I was like, Trevor is the man."
But then, he quit Nitro, too. He realized making the Olympic snowboardcross team mattered to him, and he didn't want to risk another injury -- he broke his arm riding a slip-and-slide while on tour in New Zealand -- and more distraction. He'd never had to work at something as hard as he worked at racing, and he'd never wanted to before. The months on the Nitro tour had rejuvenated him and reinvigorated his love for snowboarding and competition. He just needed to focus.
"In boardercross, he really has to focus or he'll have horrible runs," Foley says. "You have to rein him in and focus his energy. He's not used to doing that, but when he does, he destroys everyone."
That, of course was the question: Would Jacob be able to rein in his focus long enough to make it through an entire season? He'd ditched an FIS race and three months of training to perform stunts with the Nitro Circus. Was a run at the Olympics really plausible?
That question was answered at his first race back, a Sprint Grand Prix at the Canyons Resort in March 2013. One month after returning from touring in New Zealand, Jacob won his first career snowboardcross race and the title of 2013 national champion.
"I kept surprising myself," Jacob says. "I realized, this is happening."
He told himself that for the next year, he wouldn't answer the phone when Pastrana called. He wouldn't wreck himself at the skate park or compete in another halfpipe contest. He wouldn't backflip dirt bikes or snowmobiles (he hopes to compete in freestyle snowmobiling at the Winter X Games and is training for it) or jump out of planes. He was focused on snowboardcross and he wasn't about to quit now. But then, in October, Pastrana's number flashed across the display on his phone.
"I said, 'I'm not going to call Travis, I'm not going to get wrecked before the Olympics. I'll give this thing a full shot and play with them afterwards," Jacob says. "And then Travis calls and tells me he's having this event. 'You coming to my house?' he says. I was like, 'Alright,' and I flew to Maryland."
After making a decision that 2013 would be his final season in NASCAR and he would return to perform on the Nitro Circus Live tour at the end of the year, Pastrana held an event at his compound in Maryland (dubbed "Pastranaland") and filmed it for an MTV show. There, four months before the Sochi Olympics, Jacob backflipped a dirt bike and landed his BMX-to-skateboard trick in Pastrana's skatepark.
And, in one of the most viral moments of the day, he hit the largest freestyle motocross kicker ever built, flew dangerously off course and recorrected his trajectory in the air by bailing the motorcycle and karate kicking a tree branch.
"That's the air awareness and quick thinking he has from doing all these sports," Pastrana says. "It was one of the craziest things I've ever seen. He's so talented and his competitiveness overrides his sense of 'this could kill me.' He's so confident, but I've never seen him fail at anything."
After that weekend, Jacob realized he'd placed his Olympic hopes on the line and got lucky, so he put his head down and went back to race training. His season started slow, with a 29th-place finish at a World Cup in Montafon, Austria. Then he finished in the top 10 in Lake Louise, Alberta.
In January, less than two years after bumping into Jankowski in that skate park in Oregon, Jacob won his first World Cup race in Vallnord, Andorra, and was the second U.S. man named to the Olympic team. When he crossed the finish line, he looked up and saw Palmer standing with his arms raised.
"You're going to the Olympics!" he said to Jacob, the first rider in more than a decade with the chops to be called "The Next Shaun Palmer."
"I feel like I can carry on his legacy, maybe not on the same terms, but I can keep things more action-sports oriented and not so on point," Jacob says, acknowledging he and Palmer come from very different backgrounds. Palmer's father left home when he was a kid, and he was estranged from his mother and raised by his grandmother in a rough neighborhood in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Sports were a way out and a place to channel his anger. Jacob was raised in the wealthy suburbs of Malibu and Mammoth Lakes by doting parents who drove him to the skatepark, taught him to snowboard and rarely missed watching him compete.
What binds them, though, is their unconditional love for action sports, their inner drive to do things no one has ever done and their inability to be distracted by what others think they should be doing.
"I feel honored to feel like a force that can come up through him," Jacob says. "To have Travis and Shaun be supportive and a fan of anything I've done, it's a dream come true."
Many people in the sport, especially those who feel snowboardcross is losing a connection with its punk rock, freestyle roots, look at Jacob with the exact same thought.
"It's refreshing that he has this hard-core, but very composed image and has a freestyle edge to him," Jacobellis says. "That will help shape the future generation of boardercross to make sure it stays appealing to the eye and keeps its freestyle edge. That's up to the next generation. That's up to Trevor."
If Jacob medals on Monday, it's safe to say the sport has found its new star. Until, of course, he decides to quit.
Twenty-year-old Olympic snowboardcross racer Trevor Jacob is the youngest, most inexperienced racer on the U.S. team, and he just might win it all.