At the end of a day of training last month in Altenmarkt,
Austria, Picabo Street and her friend Alexandra Meissnitzer of
Austria agreed to ski to the bottom of a hill together.
Meissnitzer headed down, creasing the groomed snow with a series
of hard, swift turns, then, after several seconds, turned to
look for Street. Too late: Picabo had simply shot to the bottom
in a racing tuck. "You really are such a downhiller, you're so
fast," Meissnitzer said as she came to a stop alongside Street,
who responded by pumping her fist and growling--neither of which
is uncommon for her. "I know it," she said. "I love it."
Street adores speed in all its forms. As a toddler she bolted
from the car on a family vacation and ran to the rim of the
Grand Canyon before her mother, Dee, could haul her back. She
spent much of her childhood pursuing her brother, Baba, in
breakneck chases on skis down the mountains near their Sun
Valley, Idaho, home. As soon as one race ended, the next began.
"I'd try to ride up the lift fast so I could ski down faster the
next time," Picabo says. Her passion made her the fastest female
skier in the world, with an Olympic downhill silver medal in
1994, nine World Cup downhill victories in '95 and '96, and a
world downhill championship in '96 to prove it.
But on Dec. 4, 1996, the brakes were applied to her career.
Street crashed while training in Vail, Colo., tearing the
anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. Most skiers believe
it takes two years to recover from ACL reconstruction. Street,
26, is back after one. "When it comes to physical challenges, I
rarely doubt myself," she says.
The physical healing was relatively easy. Just before
Thanksgiving, barely more than 11 months after her fall, Street
worked in Vail with Andreas Rickenbach, the U.S. women's
assistant downhill and Super G coach. "She was so powerful on
her skis," recalls Rickenbach, "that I knew after those five
days that she would be in Nagano."
Street's psyche responded more slowly. She usually is bursting
with confidence, but through early January she trained in an old
purple uniform rather than her new, iridescent yellow one, so
she wouldn't be easily identified. Preparing for runs, she
listened to low-intensity bubble-gum rock. At last, on Jan. 18,
she wore her yellow suit and cranked up the hip-hop on her
headphones. "It's time to let my tiger surface," she said. After
an encouraging 10th place finish on the curvy Altenmarkt
downhill course, which she doesn't like, Street said, "I'll be a
threat in Nagano, count on it." After her fourth-place finish
the next week in Cortina, Italy, the doubters were few. Says her
boyfriend, former Stanford running back J.J. Lasley, "I've seen
her competitiveness change in the last couple of weeks." She was
so fearless in her final pre-Olympic race that she crashed going
75 mph down the course in Are, Sweden, and was knocked
unconscious, but she got up after a few minutes and walked away.
Street is well suited to the Nagano downhill, which she
inspected last March by riding down it on Rickenbach's back.
It's a speed course, with few technical sections. "This course
is really good for her," says Germany's Katja Seizinger, the
1994 downhill winner and Street's main rival. "It's pretty flat,
and she's the best glider on the circuit."
Street lay on a rubbing table in a small Austrian hotel and
soaked up the possibilities. "It's more interesting now," she
said. "What if I had stayed healthy and kept spanking everybody?
Then I'd go to the Olympics, and people would say, 'Oh, boy,
Picabo won again.' But now people can look at me and say, 'Wow,
she came back really fast from this knee injury, and she's up
there again. How spectacular is that?'" She clasped her fingers
behind her long braid. "And if I pull it off," she said, "that's
COLOR PHOTO: ZOOM/ALLSPORT [Picabo Street skiing]