James Lawton: Board games for the 21st century

Britain's Zoe Gillings misses out in Vancouver's radical success story
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Lindsey Vonn, the superwoman skier of these 21st Winter 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 lost in the end, slipping out in the semi-finals of her extraordinary speciality as Canada's Maelle Ricker survived a collision with her arch rival American Lindsey Jacobellis before going on to sweep away the gold.

Gillings had another disappointment when she pulled up just a stride from the start line of a consolation final. It was a breaking point in the most demanding day of her sporting life but there was considerable satisfaction in that she had made a serious challenge to be the queen of snowboarding.

Not so long ago that would have put her on the outer fringes of what some might have called to serious sport.

Not any longer – not, anyway, without the risk of being charged with missing the single most astonishing surge of popularity being enjoyed here by the snowboarders and their freestyle skiing cousins.

Any doubts about this were been swept away in the previous 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 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 was 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 a day of action in which she finished eighth in qualifying and progressed through her quarter-final in comfort.

"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 when she jumped over a car in a 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."

In snowboarding catastrophe is simply a matter of degree.

On the eve of yesterday's battle, when the contenders were required to making two timed qualifying runs, then fight their way through quarter-finals, semis and the moment of final, and frenetic, truth, the owner of the sport's most sensational mishap said that she had battled 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.

America's Jacobellis now has to fight her way through another nightmare of self-recrimination after brushing with Ricker in their semi-final and then, with her hands on her head, trailing out of the course.

In Turin she 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."

Method grab? Smushed like Mario? The method grab, we are told patiently, is a fundamental trick performed by grabbing the heel edge of the snowboard between the bindings with the leading hand. It could have been a Mosquito, a Super Nose Grab, a Cross Rocket, a Squirrel, even a Squirrel Pyscho.

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 mushroom men being periodically squished.

It is also routine in snowboarding. Jacobellis, though, was emphatic that she before last night's drama that 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 little overhyped by the Olympics back in Turin. I was pretty young then." She was feeling a lot older last night.

Most of all it seems Jacobellis, like Gillings, sees her sport as an expression of herself as much as a guaranteed career course. "When I crash, I like to crash hard," says Jacobellis. "It's not my ideal thing to do. I just don't do a little wimpy, 'oh, she did a little slough and she's down on her butt'. What happened in Turin was full on, like, 'Oh man, it's a Lindsey wreck'."

Such is the ruling philosophy of the sport Zoe Gillings was engaging at the highest level here last night. "We've had some problems coming to these Games. But at no point have I felt less than privileged to be here. It is always a pleasure."

For Ricker, who lives in the logging town of Squamish just a few miles up the road from here further into the mountains, the years of pleasure – and relentless practice – brought her glory that could not have been imagined a few years ago.

Four year ago she left Turin without any recall of her run. She was suffering from heavy concussion. Last night she was the queen of all she surveyed. For Zoe Gillings there was the comfort that she had finished eighth in the fastest growing sport the mountains have ever seen.

What to watch today: Chemmy Alcott v Lindsey Vonn

Main event

Chemmy Alcott and Lindsey Vonn in the women's downhill

Great Britain's best female skier, Chemmy Alcott, will be determined to improve on her 11th-placed finish in the Turin Games, which could easily have been a medal finish. Alcott has suffered many setbacks in her quest for an Olympic medal, including a broken ankle which disrupted the majority of her season last year.

The 27-year-old broke her neck skiing at the age of 12 but after having two vertebrae fused together, remarkably managed to continue in the sport. The London athlete believes winning an Olympic medal is her destiny, and there will be no better opportunity than today's downhill.

Competition however, will be fierce for the five-time British champion as America's Lindsey Vonn should also be fit enough to take to the slopes. Vonn, who is expected to triumph in a variety of the women's skiing events, has been suffering from a debilitating shin injury which had put her participation in doubt. 6.30pm, BBC2

Best of the rest

Luge (men's double)

After the tragedy of the opening weekend, when Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed, appetite for the luge may understandably be limited. The double luge, though, could be worth watching. The extra man should guarantee high speeds and world records could be broken on this fastest of tracks. 4.15am, Eurosport

Speed skating (men's 1000m)

World champion Shani Davis tries to regain his 1000m crown. 12.00am, Eurosport

Snowboarding (men's half-pipe)

Shaun White of the United States puts his skills to the test on Cypress Mountain. White could also unveil a new trick, the "Tomahawk", providing there is enough snow on the Mountain. 3.15am, Eurosport

Chris Thorne