Hilary Lindh has always been a quiet, respected member of the Great White Circus troupe, hardly one to attract much attention among her peers on the World Cup ski circuit. But now that she has started taking big, brassy trails in the Rockies and turning them into beginner's hills, others on the tour have been falling all over themselves offering well-meaning words of advice.
Namely: Slow down.
"Yeah, they're giving me a hard time," Lindh says. "One coach called me the goddess of downhill."
The 25-year-old Lindh has yet to ski Mount Olympus—unless he selects the wrong wax, Zeus remains the odds-on favorite on that course. But she has been steamrolling the World Cup mortals, winning the opening 1994-95 downhill on Dec. 2 in Vail, Colo., then extending her mastery of the Rockies to Canada, finishing second in last Friday's race in Lake Louise, Alberta, and winning another downhill on the same course 24 hours later. Between Lindh's victories, Picabo Street provided the U.S. women with an unprecedented three in a row by beating Lindh by a substantial .76 of a second Friday. (Americans hadn't finished one-two in a downhill since Holly Flanders and Cindy Nelson did it in Arosa, Switzerland, in 1982.)
Though Street finished tied for third and Lindh was 13th as Germany's Katja Seizinger, the defending World Cup Super G champion, won her first Super G event of the young season on Sunday, they have been playing an astounding game of ski tag, chasing each other over steep trails in a year-old rivalry that has bubbled over at the top of the downhill standings. (At week's end, Lindh was in first place, with Seizinger second and Street third.) Right now. Lindh is It. Her two victories this month give her three in her career—and three since last February—tying Flanders, Nelson and Bill Johnson for most World Cup downhill wins by an American. Meanwhile, Street's first World Cup win added substance to a persona that has made her America's skiing pinup.
But Lindh is using Street's celebrity as a spur. "Going up the lift before the race," Lindh declared at Vail, "I saw a banner that said WORLD CUP RACE, FEATURING PICABO STREET. I said, 'That's it.' "
By finishing second in the Lillehammer Olympic downhill, Street had moved to the top of the marquee, and Lindh had spent most of 1994 being defined by who she is not. She was not named after an Indian tribe, river or town in Idaho. (That's Picabo.) She did not have what Newt Gingrich might call counterculturalist parents with the names of Stubby and Dee. (Who else would call a kid Picabo?) She has never appeared on Sesame Street or American Gladiators (as Picabo has), though she did turn down an invitation to Gladiators "because I didn't want to make a fool of myself." She also wasn't a silver medalist in the Olympics of Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan and David Letterman's mom.
Lindh made the grave mistake of getting her silver at the 1992 Games in Albertville. Few were able to pick the 5'9" native of Alaska out of the crowd, although she was standing in plain view on the second step of the podium. "Funny," Lindh says, "but I didn't think many people would watch [Lillehammer] because those Olympics were so close to the last one." Then Tommy Moe gave the U.S. a glamorous gold on the first day in the men's downhill, and the seamy Kerrigan-Harding affair transfixed America. But the country also needed an antidote to the Harding-Kerrigan infection, and here came Picabo, freckled, free-spirited and with a wonderful story to tell. Street has a personality bigger than the Alps, and it didn't seem to leave much room for a second American woman downhiller, especially one who placed seventh. Instead of being considered on her own terms, the demure Lindh was reduced to being a foil—Helena to Street's Hermia (A Midsummer Night's Dream), Ginger to Street's Mary Ann (Gilligan 's Island). Make up your own analogy.
"I hate being characterized as the strong, silent type," Lindh said in Vail. "That's such b.s. I don't even know what it means. When I was younger, people said I was shy, but that was because I didn't make small talk. I'm not silent in personal situations. But I've always disliked people who are overbearing, people who have to make an impression by being loud. I'm not loud or boisterous, and I think that's a good thing. I want to be worthy of respect because I excel at what I do." She paused. "Classy," she said, brightening. "That's how I want to be defined. A class act."
Lindh' of course, was talking indirectly about what's-her-name. She and Street have had a relationship as chilly as packed powder. They spent entire training camps during the summer without exchanging a word, although they began to defrost in Vail. They held a joint press conference the day before the downhill, and after Lindh completed her own Super G run there (she finished 27th), she was on the walkie-talkie giving a course report to Street, who was waiting at the top of the mountain for her start. (Street would finish seventh.) Their stunning, and mutual, success seems to have created a thaw.