More and more often, the old cliche “age is just a number” seems to be playing itself out, especially in sports. Take IndyCar racer Helio Castroneves. Prior to the Indianapolis 500 last year, he had three victories in the prestigious race as a younger man, but couldn’t seem to nail down the fourth, which would tie him with AJ Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr, for most wins ever. At 46, many people, including his ex-boss Roger Penske, had written him off. But in the thrilling closing laps of the 2021 race, and competing for a small team, Castroneves passed Alex Palou, a man about half of his age, for the improbable win. Castroneves says he plans to compete again this May for a possible fifth victory. And, of course, there’s NFL quarterback Tom Brady, who, at 43, won his seventh Super Bowl for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after having been traded by powerhouse New England.
Then at Beijing a few weeks ago, there were snowboarders Nick Baumgartner and Lindsey Jacobellis, both of whom had competed in several past Olympics, but neither managing a Gold Medal, despite being among the best in their sport. Surprise! In the Snowboard Team Mixed Cross final, the pair pulled out an unlikely Gold. Baumgartner, at 40, is the oldest person in Winter Olympics history to stand atop the podium, while Jacobellis, at 36, is the oldest American woman to place at any Winter Games. Last week, we chatted with Jacobellis for her take on the fairytale Beijing ending, where she won two Golds. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to interview Baumgartner. Following are edited excerpts from a longer phone conversation.
Jim Clash: You had already won the men’s part of your Team Mixed Cross finals heat. It was then up to Lindsey Jacobellis to bring it home. What were you thinking as she came down the hill?
Nick Baumgartner: I had wanted to make a statement on my side of that Mixed Team race. I would have taken a medal any way I could, even if I had made a mistake on my run and Lindsey had to whip everyone’s butt. But I also wanted to show the world that the hard work and sacrifice I had done all of these years was for a reason, meaning had I made it to the earlier men’s Individual final without the small mistake I made, I could have won. In the start gate at the Mixed Team finals, I looked over, and I’m standing next to the Individual Silver and Bronze medalists! It was the perfect chance for me to prove that I could have medaled in the Individual. It did feel nice to cross the finish line first in the Mixed Team, knowing I had done my part, and that it was now up to my teammate.
Looking up the hill, there’s Lindsey Jacobellis, the most dominant Snowboard Cross racer of all time. So I’m not that worried, really more excited just to watch. Out of the start, Lindsey was third, and, at that moment I knew we had probably won the Olympics. I know how hungry she is. When she’s hunting you down, you do not want to be in that position. She drafted the first girl, then sling-shot past her, right into the back of Michela Moioli. She shot to the inside of Michela in the second-to-last turn, then started pulling away. That’s when all of the emotion hit me. It was like, “We just won the Olympics! I’m finally taking that medal home.” Then, to be able to share it with Lindsey, who had gone through 16 years of the media being so hard on her for her Torino mistake in 2006, was unbelievable.
Clash: We could all see how excited you were. What were the first words exchanged after Lindsey crossed the finish line?
Baumgartner: I just remember grabbing hold of her. I’m an emotional guy, anyway, so I’m holding back tears. I do remember telling her, “You are freaking awesome!” I was probably loving her a little too hard, squeezing her, because she was, “Oh wait, I need to breathe” [laughs]. I dropped down to take her board off so she could breathe, so she didn’t have to do it herself. Then it just went to celebrating, looking back at our teammates screaming and losing their minds on the other side of the fence.
Clash: So within 48 hours, you went from the extreme low of not making the men’s Individual final, to winning Gold in the Team Mixed. What was that roller-coaster ride like?
Baumgartner: It took me 20 minutes to gather enough courage and hold back tears to do my first media interview after the Individual. When the reporter started talking to me, the floodgates opened and the tears started coming out. As soon as I got done with the interview, though, my coach said I was for sure going to be in the Team Mixed race. At that moment, it was like, “You’ve got to find a way to pick yourself up and leave all of the bad in the past.” It would have been a shame to let that Individual race affect my shot at redemption. I also had so many messages from people back home supporting me. When we went back out there and were able to do it, it was unbelievable, one, for me to beat the men’s Silver and Bronze Individual medalists, and two, to take the Team Mixed Gold. You go from devastation to the highest-high you can get. A turnaround like that in just 48 hours is like getting hit by a truck.
Clash: Where do you keep that Gold Medal, anyway?
Baumgartner: It’s funny, but everyone says I should lock it in a safe. Absolutely not, it’s in my pocket at all times, at least for now. These medals are legit, three-and-a-half pounds of silver wrapped in gold. I get to re-live my experience by putting it in a kid’s hand, seeing the “oh my God, this is so heavy” and their eyes lighting up. If someone wants a picture holding it, it’s going to happen. This medal will have some character when I’m done. People will probably will drop it, the ribbon will get really dirty. So be it. I want to share it, not hide it.
Clash: I asked Lindsey this the other day, but wouldn’t this story make for a great movie?
Baumgartner: I just know if that movie were made, I would watch it. I’m hoping people feel the same way. In this world today, we need inspiration, someone to give us the “hey, you can do it.” Our story is perfect for that. We’ve both fought through so much failure and adversity to achieve what we did at Beijing, the biggest wins of our careers at our ages, and it’s phenomenal.
Clash: Well, then, who should play you?
Baumgartner: Everyone says it should be Will Ferrell. I’m already an aging athlete, but now you want a guy that’s 20 years older than me to play me? That seems a little weird [laughs]. But I love his personality, that he genuinely wants to make people smile, whether they’re laughing with him or at him. Or how about a strong, young, strapping man like Zac Efron?