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COUNTDOWN TO THE OLYMPICS: 10 Days Until the Games

Setting Up Another Street Festival

Skiing: Former Olympic champion has recovered from devastating injuries and hopes to go out in style after the Salt Lake City Games.

January 29, 2002|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Picabo Street has literally gone from Triumph (Idaho) to triumph and experienced more than a redheaded tomboy from a two-hitch town could ever have imagined.

She has bagged two Olympic medals--silver and gold--two World Cup downhill titles, a world championship and all that comes with the spoils: wealth, fame and a Nike contract.

Her collection also includes an array of surgical scars, including one she calls her "Bride of Frankenstein," a 10-inch zipper that runs along her left thigh.

This gruesome flesh wound came via Crans Montana, Switzerland, the result of a Friday the 13th spill in a World Cup race only a month after Street stunned the world by winning gold in super-giant slalom at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

The Crans crack-up should have ended all talk of skiing for the red, white and blue in 2002.

Street's career should have been over the second she slammed into that fence, shattering her left femur and blowing out her right knee.

"I thought maybe it was done for her," recalls Herwig Demschar, U.S. women's team coach at the time and one of the first persons to reach her at the accident site.

The injuries cost Street two seasons on the World Cup circuit.

Yet, here she is, four years later, after plunging into physical rehab and out of depression, after watching another World Cup compatriot lose her life on a mountain, ready to risk it one last time at the Salt Lake Games.

The obvious question, of course, is, 'Why?'

Gold medal?

Has that.

Legacy?

Secured.

Personal life?

Recently engaged to be married.

Finances?

Set.

Nike deal?

Just did it.

"I'm not coming back to prove myself as an athlete to myself or anyone else for that matter," says Street, who is expected to retire from ski racing after the Salt Lake City Games. "That's not why I have returned. I have returned because I don't want to walk away from the sport on anyone's terms but my own, and that includes the fence."

This is not the same freckle-faced dervish who burst on the scene in 1994, sucking oxygen out of every room she entered en route to winning a silver medal in the downhill in Norway.

Street is 30 now, street smart. In her life as a downhill racer, she has dished and taken it, plowing through sets of coaches, teammates, boyfriends, joys and traumas.

She is now more pragmatic than precocious--with time comes wisdom. Her smile still lights a room but it is more of a long burn. Street has been heightened and hardened by reality, like a cop who has walked the beat a few years.

That she sometimes slips into talk of fatalism might be expected, given the treacherous backdrop to her life's story. In 1994, Street was leading the pre-Olympic race at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in which Austrian star Ule Maier was killed. Street watched from below on a video screen as Maier tumbled and struck her head on a timing box.

Last October, French star Regine Cavagnoud died after a freak accident in which she collided with a coach during a training run.

"There are times when I'm siting on a chair lift when I think about Ule and I think about Regine," Street says. "To be honest, I'm not afraid of dying. I'm not afraid of death, obviously. To do what I do I couldn't be.

"I'm afraid of the people I'll leave behind. What they'd go through. Maybe that's a warped reality, I don't know. But that's me. That's where I live.

"I don't care about me. I can go. If I were to hit the wall and go, immediately, ski racing, how much more perfect could it be for me? For me. Only me, however. Everybody else? Complete nightmare. Absolutely horrific. Just like Ule and Regine. They both died doing what they loved, but they left all of us behind to be sad and to wonder why. And I guarantee you, every single one of us said, 'Am I next?'"

It is difficult to link this Street to the sailor-tongued girl who was ski-booted off the ski team in 1990 for insubordination, the girl who preferred suds to sit-ups.

Who could have envisioned she would develop the fortitude and discipline to become an Olympic champion and mount against-all-odd comebacks not once, but twice?

"She has matured a lot through the years," says Demschar, the former Austrian coach who guided Street to her gold medal.

Her victory in super-G at Nagano was a minor miracle given she had shredded left knee ligaments in a spill at Vail, Colo., in December 1996. Yet, her motivation then was vivid and clear: to return in time for the 1998 Olympics and fulfill her dream of winning gold.

"Nagano was definitely a godsend, a gift from above; it all just fell in place and clicked for me," Street says.

Ah, but the second comeback, what could possibly be in it for her now?

Her terrible tumble in Switzerland should have been a jumping-off point, as she writhed in almost unbearable pain begging for an injection that could numb her lower torso.

Street is spiritual more than religious and saw Crans as the evil karma that had come to counter-balance her Olympic fame.

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