• U.S.

Nagano 1998: Alpine Skiing: Street Smarts

6 minute read
Stephen Koepp/Lake Placid.

Picabo Street thinks fast, as if she were in a time zone all her own. It was about a year ago, when she was still falling through the air at about 70 m.p.h., that she started planning for her comeback. She had been streaking along on a training run at Vail, Colo., when she encountered a smooth spot where a speed bump had always been. “So I didn’t have to make some real crappy turn like we usually do up there. I carved a fatty,” she says with some admiration for the slingshot turn that blew her off the fast track to Olympic gold. “That’s when I decided, when I saw where I was going to hit, that the potential for me to blow out both my knees right now is pretty high, so I’d better just blow my left one out again. [The surgeon] can clean it up when he goes in there to fix it.” The crash went according to plan; with an awful pop, Street tore the anterior cruciate ligament. The damage-control maneuver, she explains, was just like jumping off a big roof. “You wouldn’t try to land on both feet, you’d kind of slide out of it.” Of course. Just like jumping off a roof.

Well, look out below. The ponytailed tomboy queen of the downhill is back, running on Picabo Standard Time. A human cannonball at 5 ft. 7 in. and 158 lbs., she recovered from her injury about twice as fast as most people would have. But most people don’t have Olympic gold as the top item on their list of unfinished business. Street has lately zoomed close to her world-beating form, posting a fourth-place finish in a World Cup downhill at Cortina, Italy. But her comeback took a scary detour in a downhill last Saturday at Are, Sweden, when she crashed at about 75 m.p.h. and was knocked briefly unconscious. Afterward, coach Herwig Demschar proclaimed it “just a normal crash” and said the worst damage was to one of Street’s favorite skis. Her father, Ron Street, predicted she would be fit for Nagano, despite a bad headache at the moment: “This will just make it more interesting.”

When Street won the silver at Lillehammer in 1994, the freckle-faced 22-year-old instantly vaulted beyond the celebrity of any run-of-the-hill medalist, thanks to her peek-a-boo catchy name, a superabundance of personality and a mountain-hippie upbringing. During the next two years, she matured into a dominant athlete as well. She not only became the first American to win a World Cup downhill title but did it two years in a row. Now she’s rich too, from endorsement deals with the likes of Nike, United Airlines and Chap Stick. Her signature cross-training shoe, the Air Max Electrify, is scheduled to hit shelves this month. Her career dreams go even beyond all that: she aims to become a talk-show host. “Every time I watch Rosie O’Donnell, I think about it more,” she said last month as she waited to climb up on an awards podium in Lake Placid, N.Y. “I want to do that with athletes so that the world can see all these powerful and funny personalities.” For Picabo, stage fright will not be an obstacle.

Such pluck may come from growing up the only girl in her hometown of Triumph, Idaho (pop. 50). Her free-spirited parents named her after a nearby town; when neighborhood boys made fun of her name, she beat them up. Her father Ron, a brickmason, and mother Dee, a music teacher, couldn’t afford many luxuries, so they lavished freedom and adventure on Picabo and her elder brother Roland (“Baba”) Street. The family owned no TV set but took trips through Central America and skied at nearby Sun Valley.

From the start, Picabo was a misfit in the upscale world of ski racing. “We were poor kids, so we didn’t have all the rad gear to wear,” recalls Baba, now 28. “The rich kids’ moms really couldn’t deal with the fact that Peek could whop them.” Despite her talent, early in her career on the national team she got in trouble for goofing off and staging temper tantrums featuring language unsuitable for the pristine slopes. “She likes to call attention to herself. She likes to be loud, and she takes up a lot of space in a room,” recalls Hilary Lindh, an ex-teammate and Olympic medalist who feuded with Street but eventually patched it up. The team bounced Street in 1990 for being out of shape, an incident that inspired in her a boot-camp attitude toward training that has never let up.

It helped her recover from the knee injury, but so did a chance meeting last February in Maui, her favorite escape. Looking across a nightclub dance floor, her eyes met those of J.J. Lasley, a kindred spirit. Says he: “I was in Hawaii soul searching, having just quit my job in investment banking. She was soul searching and trying to get away from the world championships, which were going to be all over TV.” Lasley, 27, a former Stanford running back who tried out with the Green Bay Packers and played briefly for the Minnesota Vikings, has more than a few things in common with Street. He grew up poor in South Central Los Angeles and endured a near crippling disease and three knee operations before the age of 21. Both boyfriend and girlfriend have a slightly unusual gait because each has one leg shorter than the other. “In fact,” Lasley recalls, “it’s when her knee healed that she started limping again. Then I knew she was walking right.” Lasley, who once posed for the Stanford newspaper wearing only a strategically placed football helmet, is Street’s karma companion, the rare person who can keep up with her nonstop personality parade.

Besides her physical conditioning, Street is preparing her mind for her big day at Hakuba, where she learned the downhill course last winter by riding down the mountain on a coach’s back. (She’ll race in the super-G as well.) Picabo isn’t letting public expectations rattle her. “I always put more pressure on myself than anyone could ever put on me. I create that pressure, so therefore I own that pressure,” says Street, a believer in meditation and Zen-like attitudes. Hers is a far cry from the old days of the downhill, when some of the top guns, notably the men, would get so psyched up they’d walk into the woods to throw up before a race. Picabo, by contrast, can be seen near the starting gate with headphones on, and some dance music by Jamiroquai piping into her nervous system, her limbs swinging through a warmup. While she admits that a few things in life do scare her–including the dark, which she fends off with a night-light–going fast is rarely one of them. “There’s no room for fear with speed,” she says. “They don’t coincide.”

–With reporting by Aisha Labi/New York

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