Arrow-right Camera

Nation/World

No Easy Street To Heroism Picabo’s Priceless Story Has Golden Finish

Fri., Feb. 13, 1998

She walks into the room smiling broadly, all freckle-faced and rosy-cheeked, with her hair pulled back into a ponytail and her blue eyes happily bouncing around in their sockets.

She says things like “boss,” “rad” and “bummer.” She still lives with her parents in Sun Valley, Idaho, because, “you know, I just love them so much.”

Her laugh is one of those big, jolly laughs, unpretentious and self-assured. She’ll happily talk with anyone, about anything, any time.

And she seems to be in a hurry only when the goggles are on and she’s steaming down the side of a frozen rock at 80 mph.

Picabo Street, American hero, certainly looks the part.

“There is not anything bad about Picabo,” said Austrian bronze-medal winner Katja Seizinger, a longtime friend of Street’s. “She is very mean on the course but very nice off of it.”

She is the girl with the million-dollar name and a priceless story.

Born to self-admitted hippies (dad says he once did LSD with Timothy Leary) who named her after a lake on an Indian reservation, Street earned much national acclaim when she footloose-and-fancy-freed herself to a silver medal in the downhill at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.

Here in Japan, not letting four years and devastating crashes temper her attitude, Street overcame a debilitating injury, a long recovery and another bad crash just two weeks ago to win the women’s super-G gold medal on Wednesday.

“When I was 10 years old, I looked my father in the eyes and told him I wanted to win an Olympic gold medal,” Street said. “I knew it would take everything I had, every little bit of energy and dedication that I had. You know, this whole experience is the dreamiest.”

But one thing the world should know: It only gets better from here.

Easy Street? Not exactly.

But the downhill on Saturday is a race that Street truly thought she could win in Nagano, and judging from the way she was much faster than any other woman on the downhill-like portions of the super-G, the race could be a thriller.

Street still is a bit wobbly on her left knee, which had to be totally reconstructed after she ripped the medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in a training run on Dec. 4, 1996.

Street also says she has taken more than her share of hot baths while in Japan, trying to help soothe the sore neck and periodic headaches she still gets as a result of a bad spill she took in a race in Aare, Sweden, on Jan. 31.

“Looking back, I think there were higher powers at work, letting me know with that crash that I could take a fall and still walk away,” Street said. “It was a bad crash, but my knee was fine. It sort of let me know that I could go for it again on every run.”

It certainly was what Street did on her winning super-G run, even though the super-G never has been considered her best event. She absolutely sizzled.

The way Street sailed down the mountain in her familiar reckless style, poles and skis flying everywhere, not only fulfilled a dream but set her up as a heavy favorite to win the downhill.

“When I was getting ready to start (the super-G), my teammates told me how fast Picabo went,” said Austria’s Michaela Dorfmeister, who won the silver medal just .01 of a second behind Street. “If she went that fast here, she’s going to eat up the mountain in the downhill. If you don’t go aggressive, Picabo will be on top again.”

Interestingly, at the super-G medals ceremony in downtown Nagano hours after Street’s victory, her gold medal was presented by Jean-Claude Killy, the French skiing legend who in 1968 was the last man to win three gold medals in a single Games.

Street could become the first multiple-gold women’s alpine skier since 1992 and America’s first ever.

“Honestly, I didn’t think I could win the super-G,” Street said. “It wasn’t until I got ready to ski (Wednesday morning) that I saw the conditions and knew I had a chance. I just cut it loose. And you know what? I know I can win the downhill.

“I think it might have taken some of the pressure off, the pressure that I put on myself my whole life to win the gold. Had I come in here and not won the super-G, then Saturday I might have been thinking, ‘Oh no, this is my last chance. I have to win a gold medal.’ Now I might be a little more relaxed and ready to go, a little freer on the mountain, a little looser.”

Anyone who saw Street’s magnificent run on Wednesday probably could not imagine the speed and excitement she might generate if she was even looser, that is, more reckless.

“Picabo has had a hard time coming back,” Seizinger said. “But when she is going down the mountain with confidence, she is one of the best.”

One of the reasons Street said she had such confidence in her first major race in more than a year - and her first ever down Happo’one - was because she walked down the mountain just three months after having her knee reconstructed.

Actually, she didn’t walk too much. During a World Cup race on Happo’one last year, Street’s coach carried her on his back down the course.

“My doctors didn’t let me pack my skis, because they knew I probably would get on them,” Street said. “But I had to see the course.

Visualization is a huge part of what I do.

“For me to be able to get out there and see not just the course, but all the peripheral things and landmarks that you’re going to have to adjust to in a split second, it was great. The houses, trees, hills on the course, they all come into play when you’re going 80 mph. Right now, I’m glad I made him carry me down the course so I could get that perspective.”

American Olympic fans, who spent the first few days of the Winter Games in search of a hero, were glad, too. And it should only get better from here.

“The first thing I did after the race was call my mom,” Street said. “I said, ‘Mom, I won the gold medal today. I’m going to bring another one home for you later this week.’

“I know it’s not going to be easy. This is just fractions of a second we’re talking about. But I’m so confident right now. There might have been some bad things that have happened the last couple of years, but somebody once said that adversity makes heroes. Maybe that’s the ride that I’m on right now.”

And maybe it will be the one she takes Saturday.



Click here to comment on this story »