Picabo: "Its business, not personal"
How the Olympic gold medalist views her lawsuit against Sun Valley
By JEFF CORDES
Express Staff Writer
Picabo Street makes some stops in downtown Hailey during a quick trip to the valley Jan.
(Express photo by Jeff Cordes)
Olympic gold medalist Picabo Streets recent visit to Hailey was
designed to give the Olympic gold medalist an opportunity to publicly explain why she
decided to confront the Sun Valley Co. in court.
Her brief, filed in U.S. District Court in Boise on Dec. 16, alleges that
the company misused her name in its advertising and needs to pay damages.
"Its business, not personal," Street, 28, said in an
interview. "I needed to protect my name."
It was a whirlwind visit for Street on Super Bowl Sunday, a quick tour
from Utah, to Idaho to Colorado.
To be sure, she visited older brother Baba and played with her
13-month-old nephew Kade. She went snowmobiling with her boyfriend Eric, then flew to Vail
where her mother, Dee, is having knee replacement surgery.
But the compelling reason behind the visit of Park City (Utah) resident
Street to the Wood River Valley was to mend some fences.
She wanted to publicly explain the motivation behind her lawsuit that
alleges the Sun Valley Co. misused her name in its advertising and needs to pay damages.
"I have to protect the brand that I am, that feeds a whole family and
pays three mortgages," she said. "Im not out to make any money or make any
enemies. I love Sun Valley.
"I just want people to understand that whatever benefits come out of
this will stay in the community.
"Before we decided to do this, and I was extremely reluctant to file
a lawsuit, I told my agent Brad Hunt that if were going to do this, Im not
losing money over it because I dont see this thing as that important.
"My legal fees have to be taken care of, and anything else that comes
out of the lawsuit will go directly to the Hailey and Sun Valley ski teams. The bottom
line is the children."
Street said she has absolutely no intention of asking the cities of Hailey
or Ketchum to change the "Picabo Street" street names that were formally
dedicated during her most productive years on the U.S. Ski Team, from 1994-1996, when she
became the best female ski racer in the world.
"Thats been an honor to me," she said about the street
"Ive lost a lot of sleep over the lawsuit," she said.
"I was just stuck in a situation where I had to take action to protect myself and
ensure the purity of my brand."
These days, when her flights set down in Hailey, Street said there are
times when she gets very emotional and cries. Memories flood in, of her family, of her
youth in the Wood River Valley, of the road shes traveled to worldly success and
"Sometimes I come here for empowerment," said Street, who
maintains homes in Oregon and Utah. "There is a strong support network right here, in
the woodwork. If I focus on the right stuff I can leave with the feeling that, yeah, this
is still home. Its a big, extended family.
"I used to feel most comfortable here. But this lawsuit has bothered
me a lot. I think of it as I drive through town. I almost feel I dont have the right
to ski on the mountain because of the situation Im in."
Deeply rooted in Street, who grew up poor but happy in Triumph, is an
underlying sense of being rejected by Sun Valley Co. She has never understood why a
promotional deal couldnt have been worked out with Sun Valley owner Earl Holding.
Turn back the clock five years to a happier time for Picabo Street.
After winning the downhill silver medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics in
Norway, Street had an astounding World Cup season in 1994-95, winning five consecutive
downhills, six overall, to claim her first of two consecutive World Cup downhill titles.
During that winter Street enjoyed the fruits of a headgear sponsorship
that was a joint project of Sun Valley Co. and the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber of Commerce.
Many local businesses chipped in money to the headgear sponsorship, which was capped at
The world began to discover the talented, free spirit known as Picabo.
New York Times writer Christopher Clarey wrote about Picabo in that
marvelous winter of 1995, "Seldom has she met a topic she didnt want to
exhaust, a stranger she didnt want to befriend or a façade she didnt want to
bring crashing down."
She was named the U.S. Olympic Committees "Sportswoman of the
Year" in 1995, an honor she recaptured in 1998 after capturing the Olympic super
giant slalom gold medal by .01 second in Japan.
"It was my big, fat year," Street said about the 1994-95 racing
In April 1995 Sun Valley held a well-attended Sun Room press conference to
honor its returning heroine. Street discussed her unprecedented achievements and cast her
allegiances with Sun Valley Co.
She said, in a burst of youthful, naïve enthusiasm, that she would never
represent another ski area other than Sun Valley, and, "my association with Sun
Valley will last way longer than my career as a competitor."
A month later, in May 1995, she signed her first endorsement contract with
Nike, based in Beaverton, Ore. Her first commercial contained the famous phrase, "The
wind howls because it knows it has to race me."
The headgear sponsorship ended, but Street consented to the use of her
name in Sun Valleys 1995-96 winter brochure. She captured the World Cup downhill
title again and added another first for a U.S. womanthe 1996 world championship
downhill gold medal in Spain.
Streets high-water year of a storybook racing career that began on
the slopes of Sun Valley was 1995-96. USA Today revealed endorsements, prize money and
performance bonuses and put Streets annual income in the $1 million to $1.5 million
Her contract with Sun Valley Co. ended April 30, 1996.
Eight months later she blew out her left knee and tore cartilage in a
downhill training crash on International Run at Vail, Colo. She had torn the ACL in the
same knee during a fall at a World Cup super giant slalom in Steamboat Springs, Colo. in
The recovery from that injury, and from a frightening 60 miles-per-hour
spill at Crans Montana, Switz., March 13, 1998, has dominated Streets life the past
She suffered a broken left femur in the most recent crash and had a
stainless steel plate with eight screws inserted. A month later, she had another operation
to repair torn meniscus cartilage and an ACL tear in her right knee, from the same
Meanwhile, on Nov. 1, 1998, Street reached agreement with Park City
Mountain Resort to become its director of skiing, mountain ambassador and host. Its
a public relations position she holds to this day, promoting her affiliation with the
Its an open-ended contract with Park City, Street said, one that can
be terminated by either party in 30 days.
Her first choice, however, would have been to become affiliated with Sun
Valley. Thats a point on which Street and Sun Valley Co. general manager Wally
Street said, "I asked Earl Holding for five years if I could build a
platform here to build a future. We sat on a plane to Budapest together and talked about
it. He knows my passion for the children.
"We had active negotiations, every spring and every fall. I
instructed my agent to beat the drum for it. I guess he (Holding) doesnt see it as
something he wants to do. And it hurt me to have to go somewhere else."
Huffman said, "I know Picabo was disappointed.
"If she had the choice, I know she would have chosen to represent Sun
Valley. We had some discussions and never concluded them. We never really got down to
negotiating over money or anything specific, although she may have had discussions with
Mr. Holding I wasnt privy to."
Sun Valley Co. was aware, according to Streets lawsuit, that she had
refused permission for the company to use her name and image in a current wave of
advertising and promotional material.
When 1999-2000 company advertising for Sun Valley stated, "I carved
the same slopes as Picabo Street," and an Internet web site contained quotes
attributed to Street, the lawsuit was filed in federal court in Boise. On Jan. 7, it was
amended to include Holdings Sinclair Oil Corp.
Street said in her interview with the Idaho Mountain Express,
during her recent visit to the Wood River Valley, that she had no choice but to file the
lawsuit, on advice of her legal counsel Kevin Evans of Hogan & Hartson in Denver.
She said the actions of Sun Valley in using her name without authorization
had placed her in violation of her contract with Park City, a Utah resort that competes
directly with nearby Snowbasin, also owned by Holding.
"It jeopardized my legitimacy and made my job difficult in Park
City," she said. "Park City was very upset."
The basic premise of the lawsuit involved trademark law. Street said she
understood that if she failed to protect the commercial use of her name, she would give up
the protection provided by trademark law.
Her name, she said, "feeds my family."
Her endorsement contracts include American Home Products (for Chapstick),
Nike, Rolex, Charles Schwab, Spyder Clothing, Giro Helmets, Bolle goggles and Swix poles.
Some of the endorsements are privately negotiated, some executed with the U.S. Ski Team.
"If I didnt do this, the next time someone uses my name, they
could win a lawsuit because I didnt protect myself in the first place," she
said. "Our lawyer had to come out and say that to me, because there was no way, shape
or form I wanted a lawsuit.
"I told my lawyer I wanted this to be as quick and painless as
Huffman, contacted by the Express after Streets recent visit
to the valley, said, "Its nice Picabo came. Were hopeful that her
timetable will bring us to an amicable solution much sooner than spring or summer."
The Sun Valley Co. general manager also left the door open for a future
association with the woman named Idahos top female athlete of the century in voting
conducted last year by the Boise-based World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.
Huffman said, "There are no hard feelings. If there was a chance to
have Picabo represent us or Snowbasin, we would certainly look at that."
One more chance to race
Skiing is Picabo Streets first love.
She uses the words "One year, nine months and 12 days," quite a
Thats the amount of time between her harrowing crash in Switzerland
and Dec. 27, 1999her first time back on skis, at Park City, Utah.
"Thats a long time not skiing," she said.
After the career-threatening accident, Picabo said she had a few months of
depression, when she wondered if she would ever race again. "Depression is like a
disease," she said, chilled at the recollection.
Two days after Christmas, she rode the lift up the hill. She said, "I
cried pretty much the whole way up. So much is the fear of the unknownis my body
going to function again?"
If youve ever seen Picabo Street near the starting area, you know
that she conducts a running conversation with herself. She was talking that day, as she
gazed down Payday run.
"Thats the same run where I did my first downhill, at age
12," she said.
"I said to myself, you need to be in the moment, to become the skier
again. The whole way down I was thinking of being that 12-year-old. And it was like, I
remember, I remember! I went nice and slow at first, cautious
.then I left my skiing
partner in the dust.
"I felt a lot more like me again. This caged animal had been
She skied all day, of course, until she physically couldnt. Then, a
funny thing happened when she got home that day. She literally blacked out.
"I blacked out a full five to seven minutes," she said.
"Adrenaline, I guess. Releasing all of the pent-up energynervous, scared,
fearful, all those things. I had to let them go.
"John Atkins, the ski team trainer who booted me off the national
team in 1990, has suggested I try to leave the hill with two good runs left in me.
Its hard to do itusually, only an appointment or hunger will get me off the
hill. But I feel Im about 98 percent physically ready as far as running or jumping
around is concerned."
She has skied 11 days since.
"Every day Im faster and more powerful," said Street, who
attributes her healing ability to the fact that "my red blood cell rollover is real
fast." Fortunately, she has still retained her meniscus cartilage to cushion the
movement in her oft-injured knees.
Her goal is a return to international ski racing competition in November
2000. During the next World Cup season, Street said her objective is "to get my
rankings back so I can pick a number. My big fear is Im going to want to race all
Ultimately, shed like to compete at the 2002 Winter Olympics in
Her schedule is busy.
Five days a month is her skiing obligation at Park City. She schmoozes
with resort guests, signs autographs, answers questions about skiing and Park Citys
history and being the icon known as Picabo.
Shes active with the Legacy Learning to Ski and Ride program
sponsored by Park City that has brought 4,000-plus youngsters to the resort where they
enjoy free lessons and lift tickets.
"I want to bring as many people into this sport as possible,"
said Street, who has also spearheaded the Picabo Street Foundation for Development in
Beating the financial drum with fund-raising efforts is something she has
consistently done for the U.S. Ski Team and something she does for the Park City Ski Team.
She spends hours coaching, training and talking with young athletes.
"I pay a lot of attention to what the ski team is doing," she
said. "I roll through the locker room whenever I can. I love it. I make sure Im
delivering a message from a little bit of a different direction from their coaches. My
dream is to have a sports academy at high altitudewhere you school em, feed
em and train em."
One of Picabos pet projects has been 20-year-old U.S. Ski Team racer
Sarah Schleper from Vail, the 1997 world junior silver medalist in slalom who suffered a
knee injury in 1998.
Street has challenged Schleper. And Schleper has responded with her
best-ever season capped by a sixth-place slalom in Slovenia on Jan. 6.
Motivational speaking is another direction Picabo is taking. As part of
her endorsement contracts, she often speaks to sales forces and finds learning is a
She said, "There are so many things I get out of speaking besides the
financial stability it brings me. The relationships Ive created is one thing. I find
what the American public is curious about, and I find out a lot about society."
Television commentary is right up Picabos alley. She teamed with
Ketchum resident Tim Ryan for TV coverage of the 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships at
Vail and received positive reviews.
Still, she couldnt be as objective as she would have liked.
"I realized it in VailIm not ready to do the commentary
because Im still out there, racing, thinking I should be doing it," she said.
Between her two ski training camps this summer, Street has been hired by
NBC television to spend three weeks in Sydney, Australia, to create features and sports
commentary for the 2000 Summer Olympics.
"Ive already told [track and field star] Gail Devers that
Im going to be right in her face for NBC," said Street, laughing and adding
that television commentary is "an opportunity that awaits."
What really excites Picabo is a book her mother Dee intends to finish.
She said, "Mom is writing a book on her perspective of raising Her
Tiger. It starts out on a train in Mexico. Im an infant, and theyre hippies
with the attitude that youve got to keep your kids healthy.
"Shes going to rock so many peoples minds with the real