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    Picabo Street

    Posted: Wed February 4, 1998

    At the end of a day of training last month in Altenmarkt, Austria, Picabo Street and her friend Alexandra Meissnitzer of Austria agreed to ski to the bottom of a hill together. Meissnitzer headed down, creasing the groomed snow with a series of hard, swift turns, then, after several seconds, turned to look for Street. Too late: Picabo had simply shot to the bottom in a racing tuck. "You really are such a downhiller, you're so fast," Meissnitzer said as she came to a stop alongside Street, who responded by pumping her fist and growling—neither of which is uncommon for her. "I know it," she said. "I love it."

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    Street adores speed in all its forms. As a toddler she bolted from the car on a family vacation and ran to the rim of the Grand Canyon before her mother, Dee, could haul her back. She spent much of her childhood pursuing her brother, Baba, in breakneck chases on skis down the mountains near their Sun Valley, Idaho, home. As soon as one race ended, the next began. "I'd try to ride up the lift fast so I could ski down faster the next time," Picabo says. Her passion made her the fastest female skier in the world, with an Olympic downhill silver medal in 1994, nine World Cup downhill victories in '95 and '96, and a world downhill championship in '96 to prove it.

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    But on Dec. 4, 1996, the brakes were applied to her career. Street crashed while training in Vail, Colo., tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. Most skiers believe it takes two years to recover from ACL reconstruction. Street, 26, is back after one. "When it comes to physical challenges, I rarely doubt myself," she says.

    The physical healing was relatively easy. Just before Thanksgiving, barely more than 11 months after her fall, Street worked in Vail with Andreas Rickenbach, the U.S. women's assistant downhill and Super G coach. "She was so powerful on her skis," recalls Rickenbach, "that I knew after those five days that she would be in Nagano."

    Street's psyche responded more slowly. She usually is bursting with confidence, but through early January she trained in an old purple uniform rather than her new, iridescent yellow one, so she wouldn't be easily identified. Preparing for runs, she listened to low-intensity bubble-gum rock. At last, on Jan. 18, she wore her yellow suit and cranked up the hip-hop on her headphones. "It's time to let my tiger surface," she said. After an encouraging 10th place finish on the curvy Altenmarkt downhill course, which she doesn't like, Street said, "I'll be a threat in Nagano, count on it." After her fourth-place finish the next week in Cortina, Italy, the doubters were few. Says her boyfriend, former Stanford running back J.J. Lasley, "I've seen her competitiveness change in the last couple of weeks." She was so fearless in her final pre-Olympic race that she crashed going 75 mph down the course in Are, Sweden, and was knocked unconscious, but she got up after a few minutes and walked away.

    Street is well suited to the Nagano downhill, which she inspected last March by riding down it on Rickenbach's back. It's a speed course, with few technical sections. "This course is really good for her," says Germany's Katja Seizinger, the 1994 downhill winner and Street's main rival. "It's pretty flat, and she's the best glider on the circuit."

    Street lay on a rubbing table in a small Austrian hotel and soaked up the possibilities. "It's more interesting now," she said. "What if I had stayed healthy and kept spanking everybody? Then I'd go to the Olympics, and people would say, 'Oh, boy, Picabo won again.' But now people can look at me and say, 'Wow, she came back really fast from this knee injury, and she's up there again. How spectacular is that?'" She clasped her fingers behind her long braid. "And if I pull it off," she said, "that's a miracle."      

    —Tim Layden

    Issue date: February 9, 1998



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