Picabo Street, the Olympic downhiller, is scared. "I'm just not sure I can be fearless anymore," she says.
If you know Picabo, your jaw just hit your cereal bowl. It'd be like a tiger walking up to you, stepping out of its skin and saying, "That's it. I quit. I don't even like to hunt."
Athletes talk about their mothers and their sex lives and their day-to-day speed-dial conversations with God, but they don't talk about fear, because talking about fear is the first step toward going full time into the whole-life insurance business.
Street never used to be within a toll call of fear. While growing up in Triumph, Idaho, a town with only eight kids, seven of them boys, there was no run Picabo didn't want to be first down. She used to get so geeked to ski she'd jump off the chair lift from about 20 feet up. In the summer she'd wage BB gun wars with the boys in an old abandoned hotel. When she'd get hit, she'd just get madder and attack. "I always said I had to keep her brother fed," says her mother, Dee, "and Picabo alive."
After nine World Cup downhill wins, a silver medal in that event at the Lillehammer Olympics and a gold in the Super G at the Nagano Games, Picabo seemed immortal. But then came last March and a downhill race in Switzerland and a bump she misread and a fence that came out of nowhere at 60 mph. "I was lying there, and I could feel this bone trying to protrude out of my quad," she remembers. "I was sure I'd smashed my kneecap. But then I found my kneecap, and I realized the bone trying to come out was my femur."
Street's left leg had fractured like porcelain, and her right knee was fettuccine. Worse, it took 45 minutes to get her down the mountain and another half hour for the painkillers to kick in. "I could've died up there," she says. "I was losing blood. The pain was so intense. It was like somebody was inside my leg with a blowtorch. But I think I lay there all that time for a reason: I think I needed to be kicked in the teeth, woken up to how bad it can get."
The leg and the knee are still healing—she's on crutches eight months later—but America's greatest woman skier already knows there's a hole in her courage where there hadn't been one.
Join the club. A young Mike Tyson would cry before fights. Mark Wilford, who has climbed the north face of the Eiger without ropes, says there are times when he's so scared that "I have to sit on a ledge for two hours and battle the demons before I can go on." After jockey Julie Krone was thrown from her mount and trampled like a rag doll in 1993 and '95, it took her years to get her nerve back.
"Before the accident, I would see the hole and go for it," Krone said, "but after the accident, I'd see it and think, Should I go in there? What if I get pinched? So I'd go wide. It hurt my business. Handicappers started to pick up on it." She got an ulcer. She became depressed. But she finally beat her fear by silently repeating passages from self-help books in the starting gate.
Maybe Street will beat hers, and maybe she won't. "I know what can happen now," says Street, who tore up her left knee in a grisly spill on a practice run in December 1996. "That's what I'm afraid of. I'm afraid when I get ready to try it again, my conscience isn't going to allow me to go flat out."