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Original Issue

Heaven Can Wait

What Marla Streb seems to be saying is this: Live your life as if
you've just been sentenced to death. "It's amazing how liberating
it was," she says, "when I found out I was going to die soon."

Streb, 37, is a downhill mountain-bike racer for Luna Chix, an
all-female team of riders sponsored by Clif Bar. While she may
not be the best downhiller in America--she finished the National
Off-Road Bicycle Association season second to Lisa Sher--she is
the one you would most want to have beers with. Here is a woman
who studied classical piano at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore
for nine years...and recently won a bike race on an ice-covered
bobsled run in Cortina, Italy, during which she hit speeds
exceeding 70 mph. Streb has some range.

In 1991 she tested positive for HIV. Although it turned out to be
a false positive, the difference it made in her attitude was
real. If I'm gonna die, she remembers thinking, I'm going to do
whatever I want. She quit her job as a cytogeneticist at Duke,
and she and her boyfriend, Mark Fitzgerald, embarked on a
six-month meander through the American West in a polka-dotted '71
VW camper bus with cow's horns bolted to the front.

She ended up back in a lab coat, this time at the Scripps
Research Institute in San Diego, and raced mountain bikes on
weekends. In 1993 she turned pro at the absurdly late age of 28.
After switching from cross-country to downhill, she started
winning races. She compensated for her lack of experience with
her intellect--she camped out at race venues days before her
competition arrived, exhaustively dissecting the course and
plotting her line--and her utter fearlessness. In short she has
succeeded by first making use of her extraordinary intelligence
(Streb holds bachelor's degrees in biology and chemistry from
Mount St. Mary's College and a master's in marine biology from
Maryland) and then ignoring it completely.

Streb gained her first measure of fame in 1996, when she was
shown repeatedly running headfirst into a redwood tree in a
commercial for an energy bar. The residuals from that gig helped
her make the down payment on the Estate of Indifference, Streb's
name for her quaint little house in Marin County, Calif. The
Estate's most distinguishing feature is its backyard, where she
has poured countless hours into designing and building what
Fitzgerald calls "this Vegas buffet of a downhill." It is a
miniature downhill run, beginning with a jump over a pit of
broken glass--"Kind of playful, don't you think?" Streb
asks--and ending with a jump off a 10-foot embankment.

"That one still gives me adrenaline," said Streb after launching
herself off the monster on a recent afternoon. She talks about
someday taking the glass out of the pit and replacing it with
spikes, or fire, or baby chicks. You laugh; then you realize
she's serious. Streb's life is devoted to waging war against
boredom. In addition to her day job in the downhill, she enters
cross-country races, won the '99 World Single-Speed title and
enjoys motocross.

Usually. While racing her motorcycle last fall, she broke her
tibia and tore knee ligaments. (She put off surgery so she could
perform her scenes in Top Speed, an upcoming IMAX documentary in
which she stars with Marion Jones.)

Streb, who is in her 10th pro season, has never been happier. Her
recently finished book, to be published next year by Penguin, is
tentatively titled The Naked Truth. Streb says that's an oblique
reference to an arresting photo of her that appeared in Outside
in 2000 in which she was clad only in biking shoes. "It doesn't
show anything more than a very small bathing suit would," she
insists. That titillating picture aside, she is an ideal fit with
Luna Chix, one of whose stated missions is to get more women into

This is the perfect role for Streb, who postponed a recent
interview so she could attend an autograph session. She didn't
want to miss the chance to impart her message to the next
generation of potential adrenaline junkies. She tells them they
can do with their lives what she has done with hers: whatever
they want.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAN CAMPBELL FAST THINKER Streb wins with a mix of smarts and guts. The next SI Adventure will appear in the Sept. 23 issue

If I'm gonna die, Streb remembers thinking, I'm going to do
whatever I want.