Hilary Lindh has always been a quiet, respected member of the Great White Circus troupe, hardly one to attract much attention among her peers on the World Cup ski circuit. But now that she has started taking big, brassy trails in the Rockies and turning them into beginner's hills, others on the tour have been falling all over themselves offering well-meaning words of advice.
Namely: Slow down.
"Yeah, they're giving me a hard time," Lindh says. "One coach called me the goddess of downhill."
The 25-year-old Lindh has yet to ski Mount Olympus—unless he selects the wrong wax, Zeus remains the odds-on favorite on that course. But she has been steamrolling the World Cup mortals, winning the opening 1994-95 downhill on Dec. 2 in Vail, Colo., then extending her mastery of the Rockies to Canada, finishing second in last Friday's race in Lake Louise, Alberta, and winning another downhill on the same course 24 hours later. Between Lindh's victories, Picabo Street provided the U.S. women with an unprecedented three in a row by beating Lindh by a substantial .76 of a second Friday. (Americans hadn't finished one-two in a downhill since Holly Flanders and Cindy Nelson did it in Arosa, Switzerland, in 1982.)
December 19, 1994
Though Street finished tied for third and Lindh was 13th as Germany's Katja Seizinger, the defending World Cup Super G champion, won her first Super G event of the young season on Sunday, they have been playing an astounding game of ski tag, chasing each other over steep trails in a year-old rivalry that has bubbled over at the top of the downhill standings. (At week's end, Lindh was in first place, with Seizinger second and Street third.) Right now. Lindh is It. Her two victories this month give her three in her career—and three since last February—tying Flanders, Nelson and Bill Johnson for most World Cup downhill wins by an American. Meanwhile, Street's first World Cup win added substance to a persona that has made her America's skiing pinup.
But Lindh is using Street's celebrity as a spur. "Going up the lift before the race," Lindh declared at Vail, "I saw a banner that said WORLD CUP RACE, FEATURING PICABO STREET. I said, 'That's it.' "
By finishing second in the Lillehammer Olympic downhill, Street had moved to the top of the marquee, and Lindh had spent most of 1994 being defined by who she is not. She was not named after an Indian tribe, river or town in Idaho. (That's Picabo.) She did not have what Newt Gingrich might call counterculturalist parents with the names of Stubby and Dee. (Who else would call a kid Picabo?) She has never appeared on Sesame Street or American Gladiators (as Picabo has), though she did turn down an invitation to Gladiators "because I didn't want to make a fool of myself." She also wasn't a silver medalist in the Olympics of Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan and David Letterman's mom.
Lindh made the grave mistake of getting her silver at the 1992 Games in Albertville. Few were able to pick the 5'9" native of Alaska out of the crowd, although she was standing in plain view on the second step of the podium. "Funny," Lindh says, "but I didn't think many people would watch [Lillehammer] because those Olympics were so close to the last one." Then Tommy Moe gave the U.S. a glamorous gold on the first day in the men's downhill, and the seamy Kerrigan-Harding affair transfixed America. But the country also needed an antidote to the Harding-Kerrigan infection, and here came Picabo, freckled, free-spirited and with a wonderful story to tell. Street has a personality bigger than the Alps, and it didn't seem to leave much room for a second American woman downhiller, especially one who placed seventh. Instead of being considered on her own terms, the demure Lindh was reduced to being a foil—Helena to Street's Hermia (A Midsummer Night's Dream), Ginger to Street's Mary Ann (Gilligan 's Island). Make up your own analogy.
"I hate being characterized as the strong, silent type," Lindh said in Vail. "That's such b.s. I don't even know what it means. When I was younger, people said I was shy, but that was because I didn't make small talk. I'm not silent in personal situations. But I've always disliked people who are overbearing, people who have to make an impression by being loud. I'm not loud or boisterous, and I think that's a good thing. I want to be worthy of respect because I excel at what I do." She paused. "Classy," she said, brightening. "That's how I want to be defined. A class act."
Lindh' of course, was talking indirectly about what's-her-name. She and Street have had a relationship as chilly as packed powder. They spent entire training camps during the summer without exchanging a word, although they began to defrost in Vail. They held a joint press conference the day before the downhill, and after Lindh completed her own Super G run there (she finished 27th), she was on the walkie-talkie giving a course report to Street, who was waiting at the top of the mountain for her start. (Street would finish seventh.) Their stunning, and mutual, success seems to have created a thaw.
"I think we both realized it wasn't in our interests to be at each other's throats or be distant," Street would say a week later in Lake Louise. "We haven't worked all the little thorns out yet. We still have the sandpaper out, smoothing away stuff.
"But I can't believe my thought patterns. When I heard Five after my name [Street, who wound up ninth, was fifth immediately after her run in the second Lake Louise downhill race], I figured I'd be happy to stay in the top 10. Then I picked my skis up, then I thought how cold my face was, then I wondered if Hil got it. I couldn't believe I was thinking it. I hustled to find her, and when I got there, the cameras were on her, and my heart jumped because if the cameras are following you around, that means you're leading. She said, 'Way to go, two good results.' I raised my eyebrow like I was asking the question and said. 'You leading?' She said, 'Yeah,' but it was in a mellow way, not a finger-on-a-nose way. I thought, 'Yes!' I was so psyched. It was like, 'Right on!' "
Street has an endearing way with the language. '60s vernacular mingled with a '90s inflection. At the top of the Lake Louise course Friday, though, she was entirely contemporary. After making a mistake on the first turn, she admitted, "I said the F-word really loud." And that F-word wasn't "fast." Of course it happened right in front of a TV microphone, and Street later could hear herself in full expletive on a replay. "I got mad." she said, "and I skied aggressively. I drove my hands forward and just got faster."
"If anyone can talk herself into a result, it's Picabo, and if anyone can work her way into a result, it's Hilary," says Diann Roffe-Steinrotter, who won the Super G gold medal in Lillehammer and now does commentary for ESPN. "When push comes to shove, Hilary always lays down a good run. She's serious, and she produces for her country. She's not the most exciting personality, but then this is about winning."
That is the other principal difference between Mother Earth and Planet Hollywood, as Charlie Meyers of The Denver Post labeled Lindh and Street, respectively: Lindh has fewer press clippings but a thicker portfolio.
Until last Friday the 23-year-old Street had only one top-three finish in a World Cup downhill. "I'm absolutely nowhere on the World Cup." Street said before the competition in Vail. "Once in a while I'll pop in and then, like, you know, wig out. Just because I won an Olympic silver medal, that doesn't mean jack, really." By contrast, Lindh had won in February at Sierra Nevada, Spain, on the same course where the world championships will be held in February. But her triumph went unnoticed by non-powder hounds because the race, run two days earlier than scheduled, was the first after the death of popular Austrian skier Ulrike Maier and the last before the Olympic downhill. Still, Lindh's win in Spain enhanced her reputation as a big-race skier.
Then again, that is the polite way of saying there were a lot of World Cup races in which you had to send out a search party for Hilary Lindh. Unlike Seizinger, who at age 22 already has won one Olympic (Lillehammer) and nine World Cup downhills, Lindh was no World Cup prodigy. She joined the U.S. team in 1986, at age 16, and was thrown in with 10 other women scrambling to prove themselves. For the first lime in her competitive life, Lindh really didn't stick out. She is an only child, and she grew up self-reliant and figuring things out for herself. But self-assertion was another matter, and there was nothing in her limited experience to help her make the adjustment to being on a team. "It was hard to get attention," says Lindh. "Not that I wanted special treatment, but I wanted recognition from the coach. I wanted some connection, for the coaches to know I was alive."
She succeeded, but primarily with the team's medical staff. In the spring of 1987 Lindh damaged cartilage in her right knee and was on crutches for two months. She returned to racing that December and made gradual progress culminating in her silver in Albertville. After finishing in the top 15 five times in late '92 and early '93, Lindh tore the lateral collateral ligament in the same knee in a fall in Haus, Austria. She returned at the start of the 1993-94 season, and her victory in Sierra Nevada was a breakthrough. Now her quick trip down Vail's International Run has trumpeted her goal of finishing in the top three in the downhill standings.
A natural glider who prefers wide open turns in which she can maintain her speed, Lindh had always faltered on Vail's bottom with its tight, right-left-right turns called Huey, Dewey and Louie. But this time she positively carved Donald's nephews. She crossed the line in 1:45. "When Hilary came in with that time," said Chris Hanna, Street's agent, "it was like she had dropped a bomb."
Street was one of the few skiers with a chance to catch Lindh in Vail, and despite losing the grip on a pole for an instant, she was a mere .23 behind Lindh's pace with only one quarter of the course to go. But she caught the inside edge of her left ski and then caught an edge with her right. Forget Sesame Street. Street looked like she was auditioning for the intro to ABC's Wide World of Sports. She somersaulted down the slope and crashed into a gate that wound up in a lot worse shape than she did. Other than tearing the ligament between the last two fingers on her left hand—Street would rip off the tape 10 minutes before winning in Lake Louise on Friday—she was fine.
When Street finally arrived in the Vail finish area, Lindh called out, "Peek, you O.K.?" Street hurried over and gave her rival a celebratory hug.
"It was nice," Lindh said. "Of course, sometimes things are done for show. But I didn't want her to fall, and I know she'd say exactly the same thing about me."
Afterward, to celebrate her first big win, Lindh pondered a toast. Mo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬•t & Chandon? Dom Perignon? No, characteristically, Lindh remained far from bubbly. "Radical Raspberry," she said, opting for a soft drink. Lindh was saving herself for the good stuff later when she would go out to dinner with friends and maybe to a club afterward.
But the best stuff, in fact, may be yet to come. Lindh needed someone to push her, and Street needed someone to chase. They have become reluctant sisters in speed, two strong and strong-willed downhillers whose fates are cuffed together at the ankle. For American skiing, the rivalry really has only just begun. This is no twilight of the goddesses.