The indomitable Picabo Street skis the same way she lives -- on her own terms
By Tim Layden
Understand this: Picabo Street does not know when to quit. Take last week in Salt Lake City. On a Nike-sponsored webcast Street lobbied breathlessly to be voted the U.S. Olympic team's flag-bearer in the opening ceremonies. "I am that patriotic," she proclaimed in cyberspace. A day later, after it was decided that the World Trade Center flag would be presented at the ceremonies by an honor guard including U.S. athletes, Street threw her hat into that ring as well. "It looks like I might be able to have my cake and eat it too," she said.
Her campaign raced past patriotism and into shrill self-promotion, which could not have ingratiated her to her peers. She was surely a worthy candidate, but in the end she got neither job. (Together with Cammi Granato of the U.S. women's hockey team, Street made the final handoff of the torch to Mike Eruzione.)
Of course, if Street, 30, knew when to quit, she wouldn't be here at all. She was airlifted off a ski slope in Switzerland four years ago with the type of injuries (broken left femur, shredded ligaments in her right knee) usually reserved for car crashes, and yet this morning on a rocky slope in the northern Wasatch, she will race the downhill in pursuit of her third Olympic medal. Says Street, "I've got as good a chance as anybody out there."
There is little in her recent World Cup downhill performances -- a fifth and a sixth at Lake Louise in late November, a 10th at Saalbach in January -- to support her confidence. But she did win a Nor-Am race against a World Cup-quality field on the Snowbasin Wildflower course last winter. And unlike the gnarly men's course, the Wildflower is full of gliding sections and gentle turns, right in Street's wheelhouse. She proved this by laying down the fastest time in Saturday's first training run.
Plus, there's something to prove. Two years ago Street and former U.S. women's coach Herwig Demschar shared a Park City chairlift. Street was just beginning to ski aggressively again. She asked Demschar if he believed she could come all the way back. Demschar remembered Street as a young hellion who would not train hard enough to maximize her immense talent. Yet he also thought there was something left and that maybe Street needed incentive. So he gave her some. "No," he said. "I don't think you can work hard enough."
Street smacked him across the biceps. "F--- you!" she shouted.
Today this is what Demschar says: "That course, it's very good for her. And when it comes to pressure, Picabo absolutely rocks."
U.S. men's racer Bode Miller puts it another way. "She's got the American mentality," he says. "Not caring about being the underdog and if you're favored, using that to your advantage."
This is patriotism of another sort, spoken in the language that Street speaks best: fast, passionate, fearless and loud. Pure Picabo. It is why she has a chance today.