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Full Speed Ahead
July 02, 2007
America's downhill rebel is pushing for children's rights with the same passion she channeled into conquering the mountain
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July 02, 2007

Full Speed Ahead

America's downhill rebel is pushing for children's rights with the same passion she channeled into conquering the mountain

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On a crisp and sunny late spring day, only small patches of snow are still visible on the mountains cradling Park City, Utah. But the prospect of summer holds no melancholy for 36-year-old Picabo Street, the former downhill superstar. "I'm really into horses now," she says as she strides through the dining room of the Stein Eriksen Lodge at the Deer Valley resort, her strawberry-blonde hair pulled into a long ponytail. "This is a great season for them."

Yes, the skier once propelled by the mantra Get back on the horse now does just that almost every day. "I've always loved the peaceful, intelligent power of a horse," says Street, who keeps four horses--two Appaloosas and two Norwegian Fjords--on her 10-acre spread in Park City and has a fifth at a training facility nearby. "They are such mirrors of your energy level. When I retired and started working with them, they'd run from me. I was so jacked up and intense. I'd have this mission in mind, and they'd go, Nonononono, you need to calm down before you come talk to us."

While Street has learned to project tranquillity with the equine set, away from the stables she still radiates the passion and purpose that drove her past numerous injuries to five international skiing medals, tying her with Cindy Nelson for the most ever by an American woman. In the five years since her retirement, Street has started a foundation, become a mother--her son, Treyjan, turns three in August--and embraced a new cause, the prevention of child abuse. And there are more projects on the horizon. "I'm just getting to a place where I'm ready to hammer it again," she says.

When Street left her native Idaho (she was named after the small town of Picabo--derived from a Native American word meaning "shining waters") to hammer it in her first career, she made an indelible mark. After getting kicked off the U.S. ski team as a teen for her rebelliousness, she was reinstated a few months later and won a surprise Olympic downhill silver medal at Lillehammer in '94. For the next three years she dominated the sport, with back-to-back World Cup downhill titles in '95 and '96--the first American skier, man or woman, to win a season title--and a gold medal in the downhill at the 1996 World Championships in Spain. "She had an intimidation factor," says 2006 Olympian Lindsey Kildow, who grew up idolizing Street. "She knew she was going to win, and everyone at the start house knew she was going to win."

Street's brashness didn't always endear her to teammates, but crowds loved her, and she loved them back. "The more attention she got, the better she'd do," says former U.S. women's coach Paul Major. Street's star rose so high and so fast that Nike made her the first winter athlete with a signature shoe.

At the end of '96, Street blew out her already reconstructed left ACL in a practice-run crash at Vail. But 14 months later, after another reconstruction and an accelerated rehab, she took Olympic gold in the Super�G--an event she had never won in World Cup competition--at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano. "That was the most magical moment for me," she says. "Winning an Olympic gold medal had been my dream since I was 10."

Street planned to retire the following year, after the 1999 World Cup event in Vail. "I wanted to go out on American soil, and I wanted to go out on top," she says. But 30 days after her victory in Japan she suffered a horrifying crash in a World Cup race in Switzerland (on a Friday the 13th). The wipeout shattered her left femur, shredded her right knee and, she says, "introduced me to fear for the first time in my life."

Resetting her retirement target for the 2002 Salt Lake Games, Street plowed through another grueling rehab, this one lasting nearly two years. But her hard work didn't end in Olympic triumph this time. On the day of the downhill she drew an unfavorable start position--26--and finished 16th. "When people ask if I'm disappointed that I didn't win a medal in Salt�Lake, I have to say no," says Street. "It wouldn't change how I feel about myself or how I feel about my career. And frankly, my competitiveness subsided substantially after I broke my leg. I don't miss racing; I'm very peacefully done."

She still skis, in her capacity as ambassador of the Park City Mountain Resort and as a regular ski geek who rushes to the top of Jupiter Peak on powder days to get "freshies." While Street also satisfies her jones for speed by riding her 10-year-old Appaloosa, Cha-Cha, she says that her real passion these days is "making a positive difference for the next generation."

Soon after retiring she started the Picabo Street of Dreams Foundation to provide financial assistance to children chasing their own goals. But when she came across alarming statistics about child abuse, she decided to channel her energy into that cause first. She's now the spokesperson for the National Children's Alliance, which oversees more than 600 child advocacy centers around the country. "One in four girls and one in six boys are [reported to be] touched inappropriately by the time they are 18 years old," Street says. Studies indicate that only about 10% of that is actually reported. "It's a dirty little secret," says Street.

In 2005, Street started a fund-raiser called the Picabo Ski Challenge, held in Park City during the first weekend of the Sundance Film Festival. Last January the event made $200,000 for the NCA, double what it raised in '06. "I'm very passionate about this," she says. "When I had Trey it got even more intense. It always made me uncomfortable when people labeled me a hero because I came back from knee injuries and a broken leg to go 90 miles an hour down a hill. To me that's not heroic; that's self-indulgent. A hero is someone who sacrifices himself for another. Not that I'm sacrificing anything, but I am using what image and celebrity I have to bring awareness to this cause and make a positive difference. And that makes me feel more comfortable being called a hero. It feels substantial."

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