Injuries haven't stopped greatest U.S. skier
"You put a roadblock in front of me and I'm going to find a way to either get around it, over it, under it or plow right through it if I have to," says Picabo Street on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
She is, at the same time, a person possessed with the ego, drive and risk-taking qualities normally associated with the world-class competitive male athlete, and the effervescent playfulness of a little girl. She was raised as the only female child in a tiny town in the Rocky Mountains, born to self-admitted hippie parents. Her name, which sounds like a childhood game, derives from the Native American word for the region from which she hails. Obsessed with speed, she has said that police should give tickets for people driving too slow in the left lane.
Picabo Street was born at home, the second of two children in Triumph, Idaho, on April 3, 1971 to two counterculture parents, Stubby and Dee Street, who initially named their daughter "Baby Girl." Three years later, when Stubby, a stonesman by trade, took his family with him to Central America working a variety of odd jobs, she was re-named Picabo after a nearby Idaho town. (The word means "shining waters" in the language of Sho-Ban, a Native American tribe that once inhabited the region.)
The Streets' grew their own food and chopped their own wood for heat and cooking. Their was no television in their home until Picabo was 14. Triumph was a tiny village (population: 50) with only eight kids. Seven of them were boys. And so, Picabo became the prototypical tomboy, competing against the boys in every conceivable endeavor, including BMX bike racing, tackle football and boxing. As a result, she lost several teeth growing up.
"It made me tough," said Picabo. "I wanted to do what my brother [Roland, one year her senior] was doing and be as good as he was. My goals were always big."
Those big goals took her to the slopes where she started skiing at the age of six. From the outset, skiing fast was her passion. By the time she was 10, Street was competing against -- and beating -- much older girls. In 1989, at the age of 17, she made the U.S. Ski Team. But the defiance that had gotten her through her rough-and-tumble childhood began to catch up to her. Partying became more important than training, and in 1990, she was dismissed from the team for being out of shape. One of her coaches went so far as to say she would "never win because she can't follow the rules."
"That woke me up," said Picabo. "I spent three months finishing my high school education and training my butt off." She returned to the U.S. team six months later.
Her first moment in the sun came in 1993 when she captured a silver medal in the downhill at the world championships. The following year, she became a household name at the Winter Olympic Games in Lillihammer, Norway, where she won a silver medal in the downhill while serving as a delightful diversion for a country preoccupied with the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan soap opera. From there her career, quite literally, took off.
In 1995, she accomplished what no American skier had ever done before by winning the World Cup title, a feat she repeated in 1996. Over those two years she was the most dominant skier in her sport, capturing six straight World Cup downhills (nine total World Cup wins) and a gold medal in the downhill at the 1996 world championships. The future seemed to hold no limits. But in December of '96, Street suffered the first major setback of her career, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee during a training run at Vail, Colo., and undergoing reconstructive surgery.
Focused on the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Picabo began a rehabilitation that included rigorous land, swimming and volleyball workouts, as well as nearly 11,000 hours on treadmills, Stairmasters and stationary bikes. Defying the naysayers, she hit the slopes a little more than one year later. Then, in her last pre-Olympic competition on January 31, she crashed into a fence going 75 mph at the end of the race in Are, Sweden. Knocked unconscious, Street was able to walk away under her own power. Although she suffered a concussion, Street remained upbeat going into Nagano.
"That crash was a blessing in disguise," she said. "I wondered what would happen when I went down, and I proved to myself I was 100 percent healthy. I took confidence out of that incident. Adversity makes heroes."
A few weeks later, Street became a hero when, ignoring headaches and neck pain, she captured her life-long dream: a gold medal at the Olympics. What makes the accomplishment even more remarkable is that she did it in the super giant slalom (Super G), an event in which she had never won a World Cup race -- even if it was by the slimmest of margins (.01 of a second). Five days later in the downhill (which had been delayed for two days because of rain), Picabo skied in an uncharacteristically cautious manner on a slushy surface and finished sixth overall, missing a bronze medal by .17 of a second.
It was a devastating injury. Her left femur was broken in nine places. To make matters worse, she also tore the ACL in her right knee. Nearly 28 at the time, Picabo's return to competitive world class skiing did not appear bright. "The damage was so total that the first order of business was just to try and get the knee to work again, let alone go skiing," said a team coach.
The road back has been a long, winding one. After two more years of rehab, Street placed 34th in her first race back, a Super G, in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in December 2000. Next came a 24th, a 46th and a 15th. In February 2001, Picabo captured the attention of the ski world by turning in a 7th-place finish at a World Cup downhill in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, followed by a 5th in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Then, in March, her comeback seemed complete when she won a Super Series downhill event in Snowbasin, Utah. Even though it wasn't a World Cup race, 18 of the top 20 skiers in the world competed on the course that will be used in the Olympics.
Street's dream of becoming the first U.S. skier to win a medal in three straight Olympics ended when she finished 16th in the downhill at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, a disappointing finish to one of the most storied careers in American skiing. After the race, the 30-year-old Street announced her retirement from competitive skiing.
Asked about her legacy, she said, "I like to think I perpetuated sportsmanship and camaraderie, and that expressing yourself is part of the deal. Showing your emotions, that's okay. Your fans will love you more for it."