Facebook Twitter

She’s back! Street returns with her downhill skis, 1,000-watt smile

SHARE She’s back! Street returns with her downhill skis, 1,000-watt smile

The skis still roar as she pops over a rise then plunges down into a tough right-hander, steel edges chattering over ice like machine-gun fire, and the knee - that knee - banging up and down with the violence of a 70-mile-per-hour turn.

A little more than a year ago, the left knee of Picabo Street - the one that holds her edge in right-hand turns - was torn up so badly it could not support her standing weight. A crash in a training run on Vail's Pepi's Face abruptly halted the greatest streak in the history of American ski racing.Street's anterior cruciate ligament was completely torn, and other ligaments were partially torn. Almost immediately, Dr. Richard Steadman could see this was the kind of damage that ends racing careers.

To hear her talk, Street, winner of two World Cup titles, the silver medal in the 1994 Olympic downhill in Lillehammer, and gold medal in the '96 Worlds, then the author of a six-race World Cup winning streak, is back and "ready to hammer."

The irrepressible "go for it" dynamism that hurled her down ice-covered race courses faster than any skier in the world, is ready for action. The glint in the eye, the 1,000-watt grin, the boisterous bravado, it's all Street, four years after her breakthrough at Lillehammer.

Both on the training course at Whiteface and at a press conference last night before opening ceremonies of the US Ski Team Gold Cup, Street seems all the way back. Talent and personality have always blended comfortably in Street, and so she seems, by any rough measure, all the way back.

But in downhill racing the difference between best and OK, between winner and middle of the pack, is just a whisper, the shadow of doubt as the big turn comes at you at 70 m.p.h..

"I may hesitate looking at a turn, and eye it up a little more," Street said, trying to explain what had changed in her skiing. "Now I may line up and see where I'm going rather than just throw the leg out there when I turn. But I don't hold back at all."

As this season began, Street was a huge question mark, and after skipping the Lake Louise downhill early last month, the questions only grew. Was the pain she experienced in her knee growing tendinitis? Could she ski at all this season? And if so, would Street get in enough competition to raise her game to Olympic level?

For starters, coach Herwig Demschar, while conceding that some pain was in the knee, followed by saying it was both common and perhaps permanent that Street would have to learn ski with it.

Meanwhile, Street's own upbeat forecast seemed a bit suspect. Ever the optimist, Street said she was training and getting better every day. The turning point came after training alone with Demschar for two weeks at Copper and Vail.

"It was so intense, the most intense training I ever did," said Street. "I was out when it was still dark in the morning and skied all day."

But the proof of her hard work and can-do attitude came about two weeks later at Val D'Isere. Her knee was not close to 100 percent. The goal she set was simply to place with the big guns, like German archrival Katja Seizinger and Swiss Heidi Zurbriggen.

"I was a little psyched standing in that gate," she admits. "I had butterflies. But then ... "

Picabo was back. She burst out of the gate, glided smoothly through the course, and hit some near-perfect turns near the bottom. She finished 10th, beating several rivals who had been racing all along.

"That was just what I needed," Street bubbled at the finish. "I didn't even think about the knee. It wasn't an issue."

Next day, she placed 11th in the Super-G.

At this point she is not 100 percent back, but says she is "happy being at the percentage I'm at. When I was training back there at Vail and Copper, I'd say every day I'm getting better and better; every day the knee is stronger."

So at this point, with both strength and confidence brimming and the ski edges rapping over the ice as she sets up for a patented Picabo turn in which she seems to accelerate, the 27-year-old from Sun Valley, whose image adorns ads in every ski magazine in the world, has to rank as a favorite heading to Nagano.

"All I know now is I'm not thinking knee or training, I'm just thinking I want to win and win and win, just the way I was," says America's greatest skier ever. "I know I'm a better skier now than I was four years ago."

Street has two training runs today in preparation for the downhill races - both men and women - tomorrow on the Whiteface run used in the 1980 Winter Games.