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    Street Fighting

    Picabo Street and Hermann Maier overcame adversity to win gold, but did unrest in Street's camp hinder her quest for another medal?

    by Tim Layden

    Posted: Wed February 18, 1998

    The car slowed, negotiating traffic in a private parking lot at the base of the Olympic Alpine hill, 30 miles west of Nagano, and Picabo Street shouted at the man in the passenger seat. "Hermann!" she screamed, with proper Teutonic inflection. "Hey, Hermann!" Unheard, Street clomped toward the car in the blue plastic ski boots she had worn racing in Monday morning's women's downhill an hour earlier, stiffly gaining on the vehicle until at last she was seen by its occupants. The window was rolled down. "Congratulations," Street said. Inside the dirty gray car, Hermann Maier waved, shrugged and smiled crookedly, words being unnecessary among such kindred spirits.

    maier.jpg (15k)
    The memory of his downhill crash dogged Maier as he started the Super G.   RUBEN SPRICH/AP
    These were, after all, the poster children for week 1 of Alpine skiing at the accursed Games of '98, the central characters in a story that was snowbound, rain-swept, iced over, fogged in and windblown; one that was, by turns, harrowing and tiresome and in which the gold medals that Maier and Street won should be decorated with isobars and Purple Hearts instead of Olympic rings and laurels.

    Maier, the Austrian World Cup sensation, won the super-giant slalom on Monday morning, three days (and two weather-related postponements) after miraculously walking away from a frightful downhill crash. Following his Super G victory, he laughingly described himself as unsterblich, the German word for "immortal." Five days earlier, on Feb. 11, Street had brought the U.S. its first Alpine gold of the Games by winning the Super G, just 14 months after the reconstruction of the ACL in her left knee and 12 days after suffering a concussion. However, her chances in the downhill, in which she finished sixth, disintegrated in part because of a series of distractions that festered over the course of the same weather delays that gave Maier needed rest from his crash-related bruises. Think of it this way: Without the horrible weather, Maier might have won no gold medals and Street might have won two.

    At 9:31 on Monday morning, Maier prepared for the start of the Super G, willing himself to be the same, hyperaggressive racer who has won 10 World Cup races this season, but his mind wandered. In the downhill, he had dived too fast into the steep, perilous Alpen Turn near the top of the course and had gone airborne at roughly 65 mph, crashing through two snow fences before coming to rest in soft powder far off the run. At the base of the mountain, near the finish, Maier's brother, Alex, and girlfriend, Petra Wechselberger, watched the spectacular wipeout with three friends on a giant TV screen. "Very bad," said Alex. Only after Maier rose to his feet and waved his index finger at a nearby television camera did they know he was not seriously hurt.

    seizinger.jpg (15k)
    By winning the gold, Katja Seizinger became the first downhill racer to repeat as Olympic champion.  SIMON BRUTY
    Given the speed and impact of the fall, his injuries were minor: a bruised left shoulder and a sprained right knee. The Super G, however, was scheduled for the next morning. As Maier sat in the restaurant at the Austrian team hotel that night after what he called his "first big crash in downhill," he seemed humbled. "Not so good," he said. "I'm skiing, I catch big wind behind me, then I am looking at the sky."

    Other racers regarded Maier's fall as comeuppance for a season in which his racing had redefined the limits of bravery. "It was a matter of time until this happened," said U.S. downhiller Kyle Rasmussen. Said downhill gold medalist Jean-Luc Cretier of France, "Today you had to ski with your head and not your legs."

    Over the next three days the Super G was postponed twice, first by rain and then by fog. Maier was taken to a hospital for a reexamination of his knee, and then he rested. "I was always hopeful that the race would be later," he said. His body healed just enough; his mind would have to wait for the race.

    The memory of his downhill crash dogged Maier as he poled away from the start of the Super G. "It was hard for me to concentrate," he said. "For the first gates, I was careful." As the race unfolded, Maier began attacking gates again, skiing his signature tight line and in the end beating Austrian teammate Hans Knauss and Switzerland's Didier Cuche by .61 of a second, a huge margin.

    Austrian coach Werner Margreiter had been just below Maier on the mountain during his downhill fall. "It was the most incredible thing," Margreiter said that night. "I was watching, and then Hermann went sailing past, a couple stories above everything else." Margreiter said he shook his head, disbelieving his eyes. On Monday he greeted Maier at the finish, incredulous again. "You cannot really put this in perspective, to have such a great race after such a bad crash," Margreiter said. "I can't compare it to anything."

    On an adjacent slope, barely an hour after Maier's victory, Street pushed free from the start house in the downhill. This was the race she had seemed, going into the Games, most likely to win as the crowning moment in her comeback from the knee injury she'd suffered in a training fall in Vail on Dec. 4, 1996. But everything had changed in just a few days. Defying logic, Street had finished first in the Super G, an event in which she had never won a World Cup race. She had skied to victory despite persistent headaches and a stiff neck, aftereffects of a headfirst downhill crash on Jan. 31 in Are, Sweden. The emotion of her Super G triumph crystallized when the gold medal was draped around her neck by 1968 triple gold medalist Jean-Claude Killy of France.

    street.jpg (11k)
    Despite persistent headaches and a stiff neck, Street unexpectedly won the Super G.   CARL YARBROUGH
    Picabo's father, Ron, had forged a sort of starstruck friendship with Killy in the winter of 1987, when the elder Street, unable to work at his stonemasonry trade because of a broken arm, was driving a bus near the family's home in Sun Valley, Idaho. The bus would ferry tourists from hotels and lodges to ski lifts, and one of Ron's passengers was Killy, a frequent visitor to Sun Valley. Most days Ron would pick up and drop off Killy at the house where the Olympic great was staying, saving him the walk to and from a regular stop. One day he told Killy, "I've got a daughter who's going to win a gold medal someday."

    "Good for her," said Killy. "I hope she does."

    Waiting to ascend the podium for the medal ceremony in downtown Nagano, Picabo saw that Killy would be making the presentation. "I had this flutter in my stomach when I saw him," she said. "So did my dad. I mean, if this isn't full circle...."

    The women's downhill was scheduled for three days later, though it wouldn't go off for five because of the weather. During the Olympics, Street lived in the Hakuba woods at a sprawling, log-and-mortar ski lodge called Log Haven, from which she could walk to the Happo'one lifts each morning. Living with Street were her father; her brother Baba; her boyfriend, J.J. Lasley; three of Lasley's friends from Los Angeles; and assistant U.S. ski coaches Chip White and Andreas Rickenbach. It was a convenient arrangement that was made possible because the home is owned by the Japanese father of an employee at Nike, with whom Street has an endorsement contract. But in the days between the Super G and the downhill, Log Haven became crisis central, home to problems large and small.

    It didn't take long for the first to arise. Downhill training was wiped out the day after Street won the Super G, confining her to the lodge. She made two training runs on Friday, in anticipation of a race on Saturday, but it was postponed until Monday. Unfortunately, Street had committed to attending a lavish Saturday-night reception for medal-winning U.S. athletes at a downtown Nagano hotel, arranged by U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor General Motors. Not only was Street the only athlete honored at the reception who was still competing in Nagano—others had finished their events, while some, like swimmer John Naber, hadn't been in the Olympics in years—but she was also given an over-the-top introduction replete with spotlight and Jock Jams music. It was all very nice, though it did not help Street in her preparation for the downhill. "To see people there like [freestyle skier] Jonny Moseley, who was already done and had been partying with his friends and family for two days, was tough," said Street. "I couldn't wait to get in the car and get home and focus."

    While Street went back to Log Haven, Lasley, his friends, Baba and Street's agent, Brad Hunt, went to a club in Nagano. At roughly 4:30 a.m., Lasley, who is black, got into a fight with a patron who directed a racial epithet at him. "Normally, a guy uses the n word on me, I break his neck," said Lasley, who engaged in a shoving match with the guy. "But I'm here for Picabo, so I tried to be a man about it. It could have been a lot worse." When they returned to Log Haven, at 6:30 a.m., Lasley told Street only the barest of details, but it was enough to upset her. Later in the morning, 24 hours before Picabo's downhill, Log Haven was full of tension.

    Ron Street stood next to a snowbank outside the lodge that afternoon and said, "There used to be just a few of us, and we could go wherever we wanted. Now we need three cars and we're an entourage, like Tomba's." He had said that to his daughter, and the two had argued bitterly as she rushed out the door to a training session. "If Peek needs somebody to be mad at, that's why I'm here," said Ron. "I just want her to be ready."

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    Their argument—"We vibrate on a high level in our family," said Picabo—illustrated the difficulties that can ensue when friends and family don't know how to treat an athlete awaiting competition. "Everybody wants to make things perfect for me," said Picabo. "They're thinking, Do I talk to her? Do I leave her alone? It's tough for them."

    Street had to deal with all these problems and bad snow, too. The course that greeted her on Monday morning was slushy and uneven, full of treacherous bumps and dramatically different from the one she had trained on before the weekend's rain. "I had a master plan," she said, "but I didn't have the confidence to execute it in these conditions, because I didn't want to go into the fence." Yet she missed a bronze medal by just .17 of a second. "I don't know," she said. "Maybe I won that gold medal in the Super G so I wouldn't injure myself today."

    Street stood in snow near the U.S. team's ski house at the bottom of the mountain. She is not one to take solace in the big picture, but on this day, in this place, perspective took hold. "When I think back to Dec. 4, sitting on the snow in Vail with a blown-out knee, I feel like I'm lucky to even be here. I don't like to think that way, it doesn't become me. But it's real." She shifted her boots in the slush. Long week? "Long week," she said. "Long week, long year."

    A good week, too, and a good year, measured in gold.

    Issue date: February 23, 1998



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