Picabo Hides Nothing

She's loud. She's brash. In the past, some of her teammates couldn't stand her. While growing up poor in Triumph, Idaho, population fifty, she learned to scrap for the last pork chop on the platter. When the boys in town teased the freckle-faced girl with the funny name, her older brother says, she punched them out.

She's Picabo Street. Twenty-six years old. Five-foot-seven and 160 pounds of sheer muscle. Built to carve powerful turns and slam through the wind like a dreadnought. A little thing like the gruesome knee injury that kept her off the snow all of last season likely won't keep her from winning a gold medal in Nagano. Neither will the 75-mile-an-hour wipeout that mangled her skis and knocked her cold just two weeks ago in Are, Sweden.

Katja Seizinger or Warwara Zelenskaja or Pernilla Wiberg may outski Street in the Olympic women's downhill, but it won't be because they're tougher or more focused. They'll simply have to be faster to vanquish the kid from Triumph.

"She's the single most dedicated athlete I've ever been around," says a former teammate. "And the most fearless. She's not afraid to talk, and she's not afraid to bust her butt on the hill. Peek takes some getting used to, but there's a fire inside her like I've never seen before. Don't ever tell her she can't."

No one's telling her. They don't dare. Not now. In 1990, the coach of the women's team cut Street, then a child of eighteen, because she was out of shape and, some say, because she was a distracting goof with the vocabulary of a sailor. Since then, she's turned into G.I. Jane, an obsessive conditioning freak who not only lifts and runs and skis like a fury, but also studies videotapes of downhill courses and individual skier runs--including interactive CD game versions she created herself--with tireless passion. And yes, she also meditates. At the top of the hill, the combative tomboy with vivid opinions on almost everything will suddenly fall silent and enter a Zen-like trance, rhythmically swinging her arms, contemplating her own soul as she pictures every bump and flat and treacherous off-camber bend in the ice-caked course snaking down the mountain below. Just watch her at the top this Saturday afternoon on CBS.

"She's the whole package," her ex-teammate says. "Has been for a long time. The only question is whether she can come back all the way from that knee."

Before "that knee," Picabo Street's demonic efforts and her steely will turned her into a phenomenon in the downhillers' world--a world long dominated by Europeans. At the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994, she won the silver medal (Germany's Seizinger took the gold), an upset as startling as bad boy Bill Johnson's downhill win at the 1984 Games in Sarajevo. But Street wasn't done. Pulling off an unheard-of quiniela, she also won two consecutive World Cup downhill titles in 1995 and 1996, proving her consistency over the long, arduous ski season. No previous American woman had sniffed even one title.

Then, that knee. Twelve months ago Street was training at Vail on a course that has claimed its share of casualties over the years when she miscalculated a turn at seventy miles an hour and crashed, tearing up the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. It wasn't the first time: That's the same knee she'd injured several years earlier.

Suddenly on the shelf and out of the morning line favorite's role to win the Olympics, she put herself and her game back together piece by piece, vow by vow. Example: When her teammates traveled to Japan last year for pre-Olympic World Cup races, they got a valuable first look at the terrain they'll negotiate this week. Unable to ski, Street rode down the course on a coach's back, studying every hillock and dip, before returning to videotapes and rehab.

In Nagano, she may have to take the entire American women's team on her back. With the retirement of Hilary Lindh, she is now its senior member and putative leader, and she's aware of her responsibility to younger skiers facing their first Olympic test. She hopes to lead by example.

"I was ranked first in the world when I went down," she said recently. "And in the past few years, I've spanked some fanny. I know how good I am and how good I can be again."

Alas, Olympic history is against her this week. Street may be a two-time World Cup champ whose broken parts have all mended, but since the women's downhill was first contested in the 1948 games at St. Moritz, all but one of the thirteen gold medals have gone to skiers from Austria, Switzerland or Germany. American women have won just four downhill medals--Susie Corrock's bronze at Sapporo in 1972, Cindy Nelson's bronze at Innsbruck four years later, Lindh's silver at Albertville in 1992 and Street's Lillehammer silver.

In fact, the only non-German-speaking winner ever was Canada's Kerrin Lee-Gartner, a blond sylph who outsped America's Lindh down what was said to be the most difficult women's downhill course of all time by just six one-hundredths of a second. In Kentucky Derby terms, Lee-Gartner was about a 30-1 shot.

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