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For the week of September 20 through 26, 2000

Picabo Is Back To Slopes—With Olympic Dreams


If Picabo does win at Snowbasin in 2002, says her coach Jim Tracy, it will be "the biggest comeback of all time."

Coaches say Street is fit and capable of climbing the medal podium at the 2002 Games in her home state of Utah. But they say nobody should have been shocked if she had abandoned her comeback during the late August training camp in Chile.


"I'm smart now, and I won't let myself do anything stupid. So if I need to risk more than I want to win, I won't do it. It's not worth it. I want to be healthy."

Picabo Street


By DAN EGAN
2000, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE

 

PORTILLO, Chile—Two and a half years have passed since she smashed like a cannonball into a race fence, cracking her left femur, shredding her right knee and wiping out her famed 1998 comeback from a previous injury.

But here Picabo Street stands, near the top of an Andean mountain, clicked into downhill racing skis, ready to hit freeway speeds once again.

Almost.

Street, America's best-known skier, is standing here, scared, with one goal in mind: She wants to win a medal in the 2002 Winter Games. If she does, she will become the first woman to win medals at three Winter Olympic Games. And she will have done it with legs tattered and torn by crashes spanning more than a decade.

If the 29-year-old Park City resident does win at Snowbasin in 2002, says her coach Jim Tracy, it will be "the biggest comeback of all time."

And it starts right here, Street’s first day back on a downhill race course.

The coaches coaxing the 29-year-old toward her once-improbable comeback radio up to the top of the mountain. They have been talking with her about this day—this moment—since the months following the accident. But nobody, not even Street, knows how she will react, if she will conquer her doubt and fear, and fling her mended body downhill.

"Course clear," crackles a voice over the radio.

Street looks up at the South American gray winter sky. She hesitates.

It is too dangerous. The flat light has swallowed all the shadows and hidden the course's perilous dips and drops.

"I'm not ready," she tells a trainer.

But other racers are, so American Chad Fleischer takes Street's place in line and lunges into gravity. Six gates into the adjacent men’s course, he crashes hard, practically at Street's feet.

"He couldn't have been any closer," she says.

The accident takes Fleischer out of training and back to the United States, where tests reveal no structural damage to his injured knee. Trainers later will say he suffered only a strain and will be ready to race in the upcoming season.

But nobody knows that now. Shaken, Street leaves the course and picks her way down the mountain to talk to her coaches. Her head "spinning," she keeps thinking to herself, "That was my run."

"Get it together," a coach tells her, "or you're dismissed from training for the day."

After a tow lift whisks her back to the top of the course carved out of a sprawling avalanche path, a bit of good luck comes her way—the clouds begin to thin.

"Course clear," a coach says again. And Street is off.

What the coaches and teammates see is encouraging: Street in solid form, expertly arcing her 215-centimeter Volkls through the green and yellow gates.

But what they don't see is more revealing.

"I got the biggest smile on my face. I could feel it inside my helmet. I could feel the wind hitting my teeth," she says. "I wished that the run could have continued forever."

Of course it didn't, and neither will Street's career, which she says will end after the 2002 Winter Games.

But it might well have ended on this day. Street had even planned it that way. Along with a set of conditioning and training goals, Street's comeback plans included several "outs"—opportunities to call it quits.

They included whether she felt comfortable with her new teammates and whether she could endure a return to the regimented lifestyle the sport demands.

The last "out" left was whether she could get comfortable hitting top speeds again.

"I had no gauge for that one. No gauge whatsoever," she says. "Until I got there."

While she had no idea whether she would seize this last chance to back out, she specifically brought it here, to this slope, like an extra air tank for a distressed scuba diver.

And she declined it with a smile after her first run, as she rode the lift alone back toward the top of the course, a lift that crosses a snaking mountain road loaded with gear-grinding trucks inching their way over the Andes and into nearby Argentina.

"There is no turning back now," she thought.

Coaches are hopeful for the woman who won a silver medal in downhill at the 1994 Olympics and a gold medal in super giant slalom at the 1998 Games.

They say Street is fit and capable of climbing the medal podium at the 2002 Games in her home state of Utah. But they say nobody should have been shocked if she had abandoned her comeback during the late August training camp in Chile.

"She already has those medals in her pocket. Sometimes, your mind will say, do I really want to do this?" says coach Jim Tracy. "It's dangerous, what we do."

Nobody knows that better than Street, who has suffered three major accidents in her career. But Tracy says his biggest problem with Street on this, her latest and last comeback, has been getting her to rein in speed during practice.

"Picabo, she wants to go fast all the time," he says.

While Street says she is comfortable tucking and plunging downhill, she insists she will not do it with the recklessness that once defined her—and propelled her to Olympic medals and to the podium following so many World Cup races.

"I'm smart now, and I won't let myself do anything stupid. So if I need to risk more than I want to win, I won't do it. It's not worth it. I want to be healthy," says the woman who refers to some of the upcoming skiers on the tour as "young crazy bucks who haven't gone splat yet."

Even so, Tracy says people should not count Street out in 2002.

Why?

He puts down the hamburger that he has been wolfing in an elegant dining room at the Portillo resort where the team has been training and puts his index finger to his temple.

"Her mind," he says.

#

Hard Edge: Through most of her career, the news media have painted Street as a funky and fresh free spirit, an uninhibited good sport eager to flash a smile.

That isn't necessarily the way past teammates would characterize her. Ferocious competitor would be more accurate.

And that strained relations on the team.

Street remembers teammates walking away as she prepared to climb the podium during her World Cup winning streak following the 1994 Olympics.

It was a pain she has vowed not to suffer again.

"I've gotten myself to a more peaceful place, where I'm more compassionate and more respectful of everyone in my surroundings, starting with my teammates," she says. "That's because I have received the respect simultaneously. Before, there were hits and misses all over the place, and sometimes I'd be like: ‘You know what? I don't care if you're affected by my energy. I don't care if you're sad that you lost today, because I won.’"

In public during her winning streak in the mid-1990s, Street continued with her winning smile. In private, she was painfully lonely, even atop the podium.

"That led me to kind of put an edge on me, put kind of a hard edge on me. I had to [be like that] in order to not be sad about it, and not cry over it and have that drain me. I had to get mad about it, and channel that energy," she says.

Half a decade has since passed, and Street's relations with her mostly young teammates during this comeback appear markedly better.

Even on days when she is scheduled to give her "old knees" a rest, Street can be seen at the bottom of the slopes tracking her teammates with binoculars and cheering them on from such a distance they could never hear her.

Other days, she takes her cheerleading up on the mountain.

"Give yourself room, T," she shouts to 22-year-old teammate Tatum Skoglund as she whips down a giant slalom course, her skis cutting so hard into the icy slope that at 100 yards away they sound like paper ripping.

Then Skoglund misses a gate.

"Ahhg!" Street yells.

A few days later, Street is at it again. Assembling teammates at the base of the podium to celebrate an American sweep of a Continental Cup super giant slalom race, which Street did not enter.

Skoglund is there, too, on the podium with the silver medal.

"It is absolutely essential when you're on the podium that your team is there," Street says. "My goal is to go about [my comeback] differently so I don't have to be lonely at the top. Especially because I expect two of my teammates to be standing on the podium with me."

#

‘Love of My Life’: This is Street’s dream for the 2002 Games: to carry the American flag in opening ceremonies at Rice-Eccles Stadium. She was scheduled for the unparalleled honor in Nagano, but had to back out so she could be treated for the whiplash she suffered in a crash just before the Games.

She calls her flag fantasy a dream, not a goal. Goals, she says, are something you have an element of control over.

And her goal for the Games is to win a medal. But even if she doesn't, she says getting back into competition is worth the effort.

"This is the love of my life," she says.

A couple of nights before leaving her Chilean training camp, tucked into the mountains two miles above sea level, Street spends a night out at a resort bar. She is rocking to an aging group that bangs out classic heavy metal hits from bands like AC/DC.

At the table next to her is fellow 1994 Olympic star Tommy Moe, winner of both the gold in the downhill and the silver in the super giant slalom. Moe retired after the 1998 Games, in which he didn't win a medal.

He skis most every chance he gets, but clearly relishes the freedom of being away from world-class competition.

On this night, he drinks beer. Street sips water. His days are filled carving majestic tracks in the fresh powder snow above Portillo's groomed race runs.

Street's days are filled by refining her technique on a course hard as plywood.

She isn't jealous.

"That's not me," she says of Moe. "I'm not over it [racing] yet."

But she acknowledges the time is coming.

"He is kind of showing me what I've got to look forward to," she says. "Eighteen months, then I get to play like he is."

 

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Copyright 2000 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.