Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Winter 2002 [Print without images]

Tuesday, February 12, 2002
Street prepares to find new self

By Tim Keown
ESPN The Magazine

SNOWBASIN, Utah -- It was too much to ask, and we all knew as much. Picabo Street wasn't going to come back and win the women's downhill, not with 25 racers going before her and the Snowbasin mountain run transforming itself into roughly two miles of Slurpee.

But who are we kidding? She probably wasn't going to win under any other circumstances, either. It was that age-old conflict -- hope vs. common sense -- and the largest crowd in the history of women's ski racing knew exactly which side to take on that one: Hope.

What are the Olympics for, if not to encourage the belief in the impossible?

What's the point of all that graft and bribery if you can't raise the flag and declare an irrational devotion to the home-town icon?

Besides, they were out there -- after a delay of one day and two hours -- to ski down a mountain as fast as possible. Simple and pure, like a real sport.

So it's not as if someone was asking you to throw your emotions into something as flighty as figure skating, where the end result comes down to some judge's idea of a cute facial expression.

Street's final race obscured the story of the winner, France's Carole Montillet. She was the anti-Picabo; she wasn't expected to compete for a medal, and she ended up winning.

The French team came to Salt Lake after the death of teammate Regine Cavagnoud, who died in a training accident in October. Montillet, while attempting to honor Cavagnoud, said her victory was the result of secluding herself from her former teammate. Through the translation, it sounded somewhat crass, but Montillet said, "Whatever I did was referred back to Regine's accident. I was beginning to feel I was losing my identity. I really felt I had to protect myself from that."

Street, one of the most endearing and open American Olympians, regardless of season, finished her career with a 16th-place finish. She has always been a singular figure -- a flawless self-promoter who manages to remain likable and disarming -- and she walked off with the same unique touch.

As her mother, the equally loquacious Dee, said, "Picabo is the comeback kid. She's gotten herself back 100 percent after being completely flushed."

Picabo wanted a medal, sure, but she'd really like to save the world. Or at least help out in the cause. Listening to her, you're inclined to believe it's a natural progression. She displayed an admirable sense of purpose, especially in her stated quest to rid skiing of its $1,000-a-night-chalet reputation.

She wants to make sure children in America realize what they have, and she wants the less fortunate children of the world to have more.

(It was Social Conscience Day on the mountain. The silver medalist, Italy's Isolde Kostner, dedicated her "victory" to Amnesty International and announced her intention to auction off her race clothing on the Internet to raise money for the cause. She invited everyone else to do the same, but I confess to having grown fond of the polypropylene long johns I bought for the trip. These blister-producing boots, on the other hand...)

Picabo also wants to write another book, maybe, that outlines more of her political outlook and feelings about society.

"I've spent many years on the me-myself-I program," she said.

Listening to her discuss the future was an uncomfortable proposition, like being invited to eavesdrop on an extended psychoanalysis.

"Ski racing has defined me for the past 25 years of my life, and I know there's another person inside there," she said. "I'm looking forward to meeting her. Maybe I'll be introduced to her tonight. I'm sure she'll be different."

As you might expect, Street said she leaves with no regrets. We, however, might have one: Not being able to eavesdrop when Old Picabo meets New Picabo. It figures to be quite a conversation.

Tim Keown writes for ESPN The Magazine.