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
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
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."
Street wants desperately to ski in the 2002 Olympics in Salt
Lake City, but she's not sure she'll ever compete in the
downhill again. At 27 something finally caught up to
her--maturity. "Hey, I am where I am," she says. "I've done what
I've done. I've got nothing to prove. It's called growing up, I
guess. But I haven't thrown in the towel. I'm going to try it
Uh-oh. The dumbest thing Street can do now is take fear to the
start house. Roland Collombin of Switzerland was one of the best
downhillers in the world in 1974--until he came to a bump at Val
d'Isere, flew off it wildly and wrecked his back. One year later
the back had healed but his mind hadn't. Just his luck, his
first downhill was at Val d'Isere, and he came flying down to
that same bump. "It was as if he was frozen with fear," says
U.S. racer Steve Mahre. "He didn't make a move. He just shot off
the jump, not absorbing any of it." Collombin sailed over the
steep landing to the flats below, where he fell on his back,
fracturing two vertebrae.
Hey, Picabo, just a friendly reminder: Sometimes the bravest race
is the one you don't ski.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA [Rick Reilly]
America's greatest woman skier knows there's a hole in her
courage where there hadn't been one.