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For the week of Feb. 9 through Feb. 15, 2000

Picabo: "It’s business, not personal"

How the Olympic gold medalist views her lawsuit against Sun Valley

Express Staff Writer

Picabo in Hailey, Jan. 2000
Picabo Street makes some stops in downtown Hailey during a quick trip to the valley Jan. 29-30
(Express photo by Jeff Cordes)

Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street’s 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.

"It’s 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. "I’m 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 we’re going to do this, I’m not losing money over it because I don’t 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.

"That’s been an honor to me," she said about the street naming.

"I’ve 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."



The lawsuit

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 she’s traveled to worldly success and riches.

"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. It’s 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 don’t have the right to ski on the mountain because of the situation I’m 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 couldn’t 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 $40,000.

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 didn’t want to exhaust, a stranger she didn’t want to befriend or a façade she didn’t want to bring crashing down."

She was named the U.S. Olympic Committee’s "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 season.

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 Valley’s 1995-96 winter brochure. She captured the World Cup downhill title again and added another first for a U.S. woman—the 1996 world championship downhill gold medal in Spain.

Street’s 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 Street’s annual income in the $1 million to $1.5 million range.

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 1989.

The recovery from that injury, and from a frightening 60 miles-per-hour spill at Crans Montana, Switz., March 13, 1998, has dominated Street’s life the past four years.

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 accident.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 1, 1998, Street reached agreement with Park City Mountain Resort to become its director of skiing, mountain ambassador and host. It’s a public relations position she holds to this day, promoting her affiliation with the resort.

It’s 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. That’s a point on which Street and Sun Valley Co. general manager Wally Huffman agree.

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) doesn’t 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 wasn’t privy to."

Sun Valley Co. was aware, according to Street’s 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 Holding’s 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 didn’t do this, the next time someone uses my name, they could win a lawsuit because I didn’t 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 possible."

Huffman, contacted by the Express after Street’s recent visit to the valley, said, "It’s nice Picabo came. We’re 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 Idaho’s 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 Street’s first love.

She uses the words "One year, nine months and 12 days," quite a bit.

That’s the amount of time between her harrowing crash in Switzerland and Dec. 27, 1999—her first time back on skis, at Park City, Utah.

"That’s 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 unknown—is my body going to function again?"

If you’ve 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.

"That’s 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 freed."

She skied all day, of course, until she physically couldn’t. 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 energy—nervous, 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. It’s hard to do it—usually, only an appointment or hunger will get me off the hill. But I feel I’m about 98 percent physically ready as far as running or jumping around is concerned."

She has skied 11 days since.

"Every day I’m 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 I’m going to want to race all four events."

Ultimately, she’d like to compete at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah.

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 City’s history and being the icon known as Picabo.

She’s 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 Skiing.

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 I’m delivering a message from a little bit of a different direction from their coaches. My dream is to have a sports academy at high altitude—where you school ‘em, feed ‘em and train ‘em."

One of Picabo’s 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 two-way street.

She said, "There are so many things I get out of speaking besides the financial stability it brings me. The relationships I’ve 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 Picabo’s 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 couldn’t be as objective as she would have liked.

"I realized it in Vail—I’m not ready to do the commentary because I’m 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.

"I’ve already told [track and field star] Gail Devers that I’m 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. I’m an infant, and they’re hippies with the attitude that you’ve got to keep your kids healthy.

"She’s going to rock so many people’s minds with the real deal."


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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.