Archive for Tuesday, February 12, 2002

Downhill skier still draws crowd, interest

February 12, 2002


— Of all Picabo Street's career incarnations as a skier  mouthy rookie; team diva and Olympic medalist; now wiser, kinder veteran  she begins a new role today: departing legend.

When Street, 30, enters the start house for the 2002 Winter Olympic women's downhill, she will be skiing on her sport's biggest stage for the last time. It is a stage custom-made for Street, the Games' most recognizable name.

If she wins a medal, it will be the perfect ending and will solidify her legacy: no female American skier has won a medal in three straight Olympics.

You would think Street would be little more than a sentimental favorite here. She hasn't been on a World Cup podium since 1998, skied so poorly this season in the super-G she didn't even make the team and won't be defending her gold medal won at Nagano four years ago.

But there she was Sunday, taking her last training run at Snowbasin, skidding to a stop in the finish and waving her arms to pump up the crowd who stuck around to see her ski after the men's downhill was over. They obliged. When she was done, they were too  the grandstands emptied out in a matter of minutes.

Unlikely contender

"Anything can happen. It's a downhill," says Street, drawn to compete in one last Games partly because she lives in nearby Park City. Street shouldn't be a contender, but she is. Last spring, she won the only downhill held here in a lower-level race with a World Cup field. She finished first in Saturday's training run, seventh in Sunday's.

"I didn't want to walk out of here with the heat on my shoulders," Street said Sunday. "So, it's like, let everyone else lose sleep tonight."

Street has yet to compete in the Salt Lake Olympics, yet has already figured prominently in them.

She carried the torch into Rice-Eccles Stadium with U.S. women's hockey captain Cammi Granato, handing it off to the 1980 U.S. hockey team, who lit the flame. She lobbied to carry the U.S. flag, both whole and tattered version (she wasn't voted to do either by U.S. athletes).

Whether it helped or hurt, Street has always worn her heart on her sleeve. Today, she'll be wearing it on her head. Her helmet is painted with the Statue of Liberty on one side, F-16 fighter planes on another.

"Before 9-11 I started fantasizing about what I wanted to wear on my helmet," she said. "And to be perfectly honest I had a lot of different images roll through my head, and every single one of them was in red, white and blue, so there was absolutely no option there other than to paint my head red, white and blue. And when 9-11 occurred I basically saw it as a time to honor some things."

Challenges pile up

She is still irrepressible, words tumbling out like a skier racing downhill. She calls the fastest route down a course the "Bad Boy line." She has named her skis and has them fighting for a spot beneath her feet for today's race: "Arnolds (for Arnold Schwarzenegger) are a definite contender. ... And then I have Jomo, who's named after my brother's cattle dog who was run over just before Christmas, and I'm hoping that he's fast because I'd love to have him take me down the mountain."

Tonys are for Tony the Tiger, Wills because she has to will them to turn and Wally are the skis she trains in, and they sit on the wall on race day.

No matter the skis, the Wildflower course at Snowbasin isn't one that particularly favors her.

It's a technical, curvy course that doesn't allow too much gliding, Street's specialty. In addition, the sport has moved on without her. In the two years Street spent recovering from a horribly broken leg and blown-out knee, racing technique has changed: shorter skis with more of an hourglass shape mean skiers roll through turns rather than powering through them with most of the weight on the downhill ski. Street has had trouble adjusting.

It's her plan to retire at the end of the season and try on a new identity. She'll give her famous first name a rest  word is Street has taken on a new middle name that she'll use in combination with her married name when she weds ski technician John Mulligan later this year.

Today, she'll take one last spin as an Olympian, and everyone will be watching  a perfect setting for Street, the prime-time player. Only one thing can make it perfect.

"If God blesses me with another medal, then thank you, Lord," she said.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.