SNOWBASIN, Utah — She flew past the finish line, skidded into the corral, then this country's most competitive skier did the strangest thing.
Instead of shouting for joy, she shouted for her family.
Instead of wagging one finger for number one, she held up her index and pinkie fingers for love.
Sometimes gold isn't everything, we were reminded Tuesday when watching Picabo Street perform one last dance in the Olympic women's downhill.
Sometimes home is enough.
The most memorable final run of her career wasn't the one down the Wildflower course, where she started fast and finished slow, her medal melting into 16th place.
Her most memorable last run began afterward, when she waded into the bleachers to clutch the two dozen family members and friends that had come from Idaho to share her final journey.
Still in her Spiderman racing suit, she held tiny nephew Cade and goddaughter Savannah, nuzzling, whispering.
"I want Auntie," cried Savannah.
"Everyone wants Auntie," said her mother.
Still with snow on her socks, Street then hugged her best friend, Jessica Kahae, who was crying.
"Picabo's legacy is that she has the power to be herself," Kahae said.
When Street finally left the group--many of whom are sleeping in her Park City home--she made it clear she is never leaving the group.
"See everyone tonight!" she shouted, disappearing with a phalanx of security as everyone cheered and waved and cried some more.
"She got to come down here to her hometown," said brother-in-law Chris Feinman. "She didn't win a gold medal. But she got to come down to her family and friends."
On Tuesday, apparently, that was the same thing.
Everyone thought Street spent the last four years working her way back to the Olympics from a horrific crash and third knee operation in hopes of finishing first.
Turns out, she came back simply to finish.
On a beautiful day such as this. With the stands filled with more than 20,000 fans shouting her name. With family waiting for her embrace. A retirement gift more valuable than a lodge full of gold watches.
"At one time, I visualized winning the gold medal ... and of course I still wanted to win," Street said. "But lately, that vision was a lot more blurry than the one about finishing at home, just like this."
Blurry only after she realized she was going to finish nearly a minute and a half behind winner Carole Montillet of France?
This didn't seem like it. This seemed real, from the moment immediately after her run, when she waved and blew kisses to the crowd through her helmet.
She later grabbed a microphone and shouted, "You guys make it all worth it! This is the best day I've ever had in my ski racing career!"
Then she hugged her mother Dee for the longest time, with a conversation that had nothing to do with winning.
"Relieved, are you?" her mother asked.
"Yeah," Picabo said.
And so this career of the most popular female skier in this country's history is over, two Olympic medals, two World Cup downhill championships, a 30-year-old who changed right before our eyes.
The little hippie girl?
She became an unabashed patriot, dressing up Tuesday with a heart-shaped flag tattooed on her right cheek, a flag scarf hanging out of the back her helmet, that helmet adorned with the Statue of Liberty, an eagle and fighter jets.
The reckless fighter?
She said that during the last couple of years, her legendary late-night calls to her parents
from Europe were not about how she finished, but if she finished safely.
"Thanks, Mom and Dad, for all those 4 a.m. phone calls!" she shouted into the microphone. "Now you don't have to wait anymore. I'm coming home, baby!"
And the big-game killer? The skier who stunned the sports world with a downhill silver medal in 1994 in Lillehammer then, after shredding her left knee in an accident two years later, surprised everyone again in 1998 at Nagano by winning a super-G gold?
In the end, she changed the rules. Going up on the ski lift Tuesday, she admitted that she was thinking about more than winning.
"I looked at everyone in the stands and I wished I could have said, 'I'm on my way down! Be there in a minute!'" she said.
Coming down, she said she skied well, despite a performance that would have angered her in earlier years.
"I executed my plan of attack, I executed what I came out here to do," she said. Finally, when she slid into the corral, she said she didn't need to look at the scoreboard.
"Coming across the line, I thought, this is what I dreamed, what I thought about, what I cried over ... skiing into a finish with [thousands] cheering for me," she said.
She is finished, but she's not, after cutting a trail that will be visible long after her departure. It is a path paved with positive
ideas about the character of women athletes, ideas about strength and empowerment and personality.
"I'm just following the lead Picabo created," said Jonna Mendes, who finished 11th Tuesday, the highest among Americans.
Street's father Ron recalled Tuesday how that path evolved, describing he and his daughter's first ski trips into the Idaho
"It used to be, 'Turn when I turn,'" he said. "Then I turned when she turned. Then, I just stood back and watched."
It was quite a sight, wasn't it? Still is.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org