Picabo Street, who in the past two years has turned skiing on its head, thought about turning herself on her head for a change. As someone with an acute sense of the symbolic, she considered doing a headstand atop the helmet on which her high school art teacher had painted a globe. Street would have been on top of the world, but she settled for putting one foot on the helmet. Anyone who didn't understand the gesture after the women's downhill on Sunday could simply glance at the scoreboard at the World Alpine Ski Championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain.
There at the top was Street's name, the winner, .57 of a second faster than her archrival, Katja Seizinger of Germany. In the eye-blink world of ski racing, the margin was so large that one could imagine Street's art teacher, John Blackman, having time to paint Gibraltar, the Grand Canyon and the Gobi Desert on Picabo's helmet before Seizinger crossed the finish line.
The victory was pure Picabo: emphatic, aggressive and flavored with a dollop of danger as she leaned backward on the final jump, an error that could have landed her on Antarctica. The passive Veleta course was ideal for her—long (11,141 feet), with five jumps and sweeping turns that allowed skiers to stay in their tucks on the hard-packed but not icy run. No one tucks like Street, who is among the sport's most aerodynamic skiers. Her knees stretch wider than her shoulders, and her body seems to sink to the snow.
Street waved a pole in triumph when she saw her time, 1:54.06. The victory was only part of an embarrassment of U.S. wonders. For the first time in 11 years, there were two American medalists in a major race as Hilary Lindh, who hadn't had a top-three finish this season, placed third, edging Kate Pace Lindsay of Canada. And Megan Gerety finished fifth. The Austrians? Their top finish was a tie for eighth. The Swiss? No better than seventh. Americans were so at home, this could have been the state of Nevada, not Sierra Nevada.
The downhill enhanced America's reputation as skiing's big-race nation, always ready to pounce at the Olympics and the worlds. "We don't have the pressure the big [skiing] countries have," said Lindh. "A medal is a bonus, not something anyone expects."
Unless the skier is Street, whose past six downhills have produced two wins, two seconds and a third. Barring injury, she's a near lock for a second straight overall downhill title, yet she came to Spain sure she was having a bad year. Her mother, Dee, who has a firm grip on reality, saw that the World Cup wasn't half empty but nearly full. "I had to explain to her that a down year for her is a killer season for anyone else," Dee said Friday.
"It took me awhile, but I've come to terms with the fact that I'll probably never top last year or even match it," said Street, who won six of nine downhills in '95 and became the first American to win the World Cup downhill title. "But I've learned a lot about myself this year. When somebody beats me, I've realized it's something I've done more than anything that they did. As long as I'm healthy, I'm the skier to beat."
Street almost wasn't healthy for the downhill. During course inspection for Friday's training run, she hit some of the fresh powder that had blanketed this Andalusian corner of southeast Spain. Thwack. She did a face plant in the snow. Andreas Rickenbach, a U.S. coach, ran Street through an impromptu neurological exam. "What town are we in?" he asked.
" Spain," she replied.
Close enough. Street pulled herself up, ignoring bruised ribs, a bad hip and a wonky hamstring, to become the first American to win a downhill at the worlds. She looked every bit a champion if you didn't mind the fact that the blue of the helmet clashed with the yellow racing suit. Street said the helmet will be retired, either offered to a museum or auctioned off to benefit U.S. skiing. Like Street, it is one of a kind.