NAGANO, Japan — You can’t scare her. You can’t break her. You can’t hurt her. You can’t unnerve her.
You can’t strip her gears. You can’t blow her tires. No one knows the size of her engine, but it never overheats, and even she cannot slam her gas pedal hard enough. If a part snaps, she repairs it. If the mountain kicks her off, she grins and kicks it back. There is speed. There is courage. There is risk. There is reward. They come together, once in a while, in a special person who refuses to fear the things we all fear, who laughs at danger, chuckles at horror, is part James Bond and part Amelia Earhart.
Not many women can sparkle even brighter than a gold medal hanging around their necks.
At the end of the road there is only Picabo.
She is, as we finish this first week of Winter Olympic competition, the clear and present heroine, the best and biggest story, a woman who managed to surprise everyone even as a former medalist from four years ago. That’s because the race Picabo Street won this week was not even her best event. She won the super-G, and her best event is the downhill, which, already delayed, comes Monday morning here, weather permitting (and “weather permitting” has many meanings in Japan, including “next year”). The delay, however, gives Picabo, 26, a unique chance at owning both weeks of the Games.
True, it’s rare a skier wins one Olympic race, let alone two. And it’s never happened in the downhill and super-G — not by man or woman. But should Picabo go double-gold with a victory on Monday? They may have to rename the Earth.
The woman from Triumph
Well, why not? If America had to hold up one hero in this Olympiad, wouldn’t this be the perfect profile: a smiling, freckle-faced daughter of a brick mason and a schoolteacher, who grew up as the only girl in her hometown of Triumph, Idaho. (Yes, she comes from Triumph. I told you it was perfect.) Even those critical of the elitist world of ski-racers can’t wag a finger: Picabo was one of the poorest kids on the slopes. Her family didn’t own a TV set. Mom and Dad, free spirits themselves, decided that experience and travel would be better companions for their children. And so Picabo — whose name is Indian for “shining waters” — played peek-a-boo with parts of the world many of us never get to see.
She grew up funny and loud and brave and buoyant, a tomboy who could outrun her male peers on the slopes, yet wore flower-print hippie dresses to banquets. She took the world by storm in 1994, grabbing the silver medal in downhill as a virtual unknown in Lillehammer. And while she subsequently blossomed into a world champion and one of the most popular skiers on the circuit, even her rivals, who claim she can be a hurricane in a phone booth, had to stop for a moist-eyed moment when Picabo stood on the medal stand Wednesday night — after major knee surgery last year and a serious concussion two weeks ago — singing every word of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” loud and proud.
Loud and proud. Isn’t that what you want at the Olympics?
“When I was up on the medal stand in Lillehammer,” she said, recalling her second-place finish to German rival Katja Seizinger, “they played the German anthem, but I couldn’t hear a word. I was singing my own anthem in my head. But from that moment, I yearned to hear it for real. I yearned and I yearned and I yearned.”
When she pulled it off, she yearned no more. Instead she burned — with pride and confidence.
“Mom, I just won the gold medal,” Picabo said, calling her mother from the bottom of the hill, “and I’m gonna bring you home another one over the weekend.” Easy Street.
The woman who triumphed
Now, lest you think it all falls in her lap, remember this Street was closed for repairs just 14 months ago, after she crashed while training in Vail, Colo. At full downhill speed, Picabo tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. The ACL is the injury that ends football and basketball careers. It robs men of their mobility. And those guys don’t go 90 m.p.h.
But Picabo is all about a challenge, has been since her Daddy told her, “Ski up with me or meet me in the car.” A few months after the knee surgery, Street came to Nagano with a coach and skied the Olympic downhill — on his back.
“I wanted to visualize the whole thing,” she said. “Visualization is a powerful tool.”
We can only imagine what she sees for Monday’s race — when her own feet touch the ground instead of her piggy-backer’s. This is a woman who walked away from a crash-induced concussion two weeks ago, and who would ride a tuck from gate to finish. She refers to velocity as “my friend, Mr. Speed,” and she was so in a hurry to play with him during rehab, her coaches skied in front of her to slow her down.
Now, with a gold medal in her gas tank, who knows how high she’ll crank her speedometer? She is Chuck Yeager on snow, pushing the outside of the envelope. In the finish area of the super-G Wednesday, a competitor asked whether she could do it again.
Picabo’s response? “Yeah, sure.”
Can’t break her. Can’t scare her. Can’t shake her. She is the face we’d like to show the world, sweet enough to be a girl, tough enough to be a guy, brave enough to lead a battalion, entertaining enough to host her own talk show. In an Olympics that has seen enough old-reign stodginess (figure skating judges) and youthful silliness (snowboarders, marijuana), Picabo Street is a perfect blend of effort and effervescence, a smile for the stars, a name for the ages, a promise to keep to her mother. She already stole the first week of these Games. If she steals the second, she takes immortality with her.
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