Picabo Street was cruising a two-lane road two summers ago
outside Sun River, Ore., cranking up the stereo past Megadeth
and yakking over the tunes with her companion, who was sunk low
in the passenger seat. Now Street concedes that maybe a
taillight was out and maybe she was hugging the yellow line a
little too tightly; the professional opinion of the cop who
pulled her over was a bit firmer on both matters.
At least until he saw her license.
The rest of America didn't know Picabo Street in 1993--she hadn't
yet won an Olympic silver medal or left all the Heidis at the
lift line on the World Cup circuit or played peekaboo with Elmo
on Sesame Street--but the policeman was sort of an athlete
himself, and, well, that name is as unmistakable as a
two-by-four across the brow.
"He's apologizing, excusing himself for stopping us, saying he
didn't know it was me," Street says. "I told him, 'Hey, if you
think I'm a big deal....' Then Bert leaned forward from his seat."
December 18, 1995
(Your Honor, let the record show it was not Bert as in "Bert and
Ernie" but Bert as in Alberto Tomba.)
"Bert pulled out his police badge"--Tomba holds the rank of an
honorary carabiniere--"and the cop is like, 'Uh, you can probably
get a fuse for that light at the gas station.'"
Two years ago it took a sports-minded cop to recognize her, but
now busboys giggle when she walks into a restaurant. Picabo says
clerks in five stores at a suburban Portland mall recognized her
before she whipped out the plastic, which isn't bad for a woman
who makes her living wearing a helmet.
Maybe a small Picaboboom is not on the same scale as
full-throated Tombamania, but as the most dynamic ski racers in
the world Street and Tomba have become cosmic road buddies,
joyriding to places only they can travel, a trip of nods and
winks. Like Palmer and Nicklaus or Williams and DiMaggio, this
is a club of two, and the two are very much alike--playful,
visceral, loud, stubborn and pushed by an uncommon will to get
down a mountain. While Tomba was winning 11 slalom and giant
slalom races and taking the overall World Cup title last season,
Street triumphed in six of nine downhills to become the first
American to win the downhill season title. Tomba has owned
skiing since 1987, while Street has had only one meteoric year,
but together they have reduced the other skiers of this
generation--the technically gifted Katja Seizinger of Germany,
the steely Hilary Lindh of the U.S., the versatile Kjetil-Andre
Aamodt of Norway, even the legendary Marc Girardelli of
Luxembourg--to mere bozos on the bus. "Like Tomba," says Paul
Major, the U.S. Alpine vice president of athletics, "Picabo can
devastate a field."
She has. In Are, Sweden, last February, Seizinger, winner of
nine World Cup downhills over the previous three years, told
Street, "You're unbeatable." In Saalbach-Hinterglemm, Austria,
two weeks later, French skier Nathalie Bouvier sidled up and
said, "If you have a secret, tell me."
"I don't have a secret," Street replied.
"Merde!" Bouvier said and walked away. Europeans adore her even
more than American busboys do. The German Swiss call her Ein
Verrucktes Huhn (One Crazy Red Hen). She's Sommersprossiger
Dusenjager (the Freckled-face Jet Fighter Pilot) to the
Austrians. But it was Tomba's countrymen who elected Street the
prom queen for their eternal high school hero. In Bormio at the
World Cup final last March, a banner read picabo e tomba: BELLI
E INVINCIBLI. Beautiful and invincible.
"I respect Bert so much," Street says. "I mean, like, he's the
only person I can talk to about certain stuff. I see him and
it's like, 'What up, bud?' I pay close attention to how he deals
with the media. He does little things, like ducking his head
during interviews to make sure his sponsor's logo gets in the
pictures. I take notes whenever I'm around him. Yeah, Bert's a
little excessive. You won't see pictures of my bare ass in a
Skim these pages all you like: no ski bums here.
Picabo isn't happy. She might be America's skiing sweetheart,
but that doesn't guarantee her a date on Saturday night. She
says her boyfriend, Joey Hoeshmann, a skier on the Canadian
developmental team, recently dumped her. If she were less sure
of herself, if she possessed a drop of guile, Street would say
they agreed to split up or her schedule doesn't permit a social
life or, hey, isn't that Bormio a killer course? No. Dumped is
dumped. Street has an astonishing streak of frankness, an
admirable quality but not always a virtue.
"Joey wants to build something from nothing, doesn't want to go
along for my trip," Street says. "He says he can't be enough of
a man's man around me. I'm the one who's become independently
wealthy. If I want to take off for an NFL game on a weekend, if
I want to slip across the country to a NASCAR race, if Nike's
sending a limo over, that's all my stuff."
"Look at her schedule," interrupts
"Appearances, speeches, photo shoot for Vogue. No wonder her
Street, 24, faces the problem of many strong, successful women:
She can scare the hell out of people, especially those of the
opposite sex. This concerns her parents, who have nurtured her
independence and produced a daughter who is genetically
incapable of winning quietly.
"We want the person she beats not to hate her," Picabo's mother,
"We don't want it to be lonely at the top," Stubby says.
But Street was lonely even before she stood on the top step of
the podium. She has formed a loose sorority of stars with
Pernilla Wiberg, the top Swede, and Seizinger, but toward U.S.
teammates--the women she travels with half the year--she is more
circumspect. "Tomba had to be separated from the Italian team
because they'd be having lunch after training and some kid who'd
really had a hot morning would be talking about it, and Tomba'd
say, 'This afternoon I'll beat you by two seconds,'" Major says.
"And Tomba would. The kid's confidence would be destroyed.
Picabo's not in that situation, but she's elevated herself above
the women's circuit, and people who compete against her don't
like that." She and Lindh, who won two of the three 1994-95
downhills that Street didn't, have a tense relationship. In a
rare moment of discretion Street declines to discuss her
teammates. "It might come through as egotistical," she says. "I
just try to keep my scene out of their faces."
The scene recently shifted from her parents' home near Sun
Valley, Idaho, to Portland, which, as far as anyone can figure,
is a suburb of Nike. Street recently signed on with the new Nike
Sports Management group, whose client list of 15 is short but
luminous: Deion Sanders, Ken Griffey Jr., Scottie Pippen, Alonzo
Mourning, etc. Street is the only woman. "She's almost like
Charles Barkley," Nike Sports Management marketing manager Greg
Anderson says. "We think she has the potential to be as large as
any female athlete out there."
Street is a magnet for girls, who look at the strawberry-blonde
braid, the freckles, the moon face, and see an older version of
themselves. She gravitates to kids and kids to her. Leno and
Letterman wanted her when Street returned from the Lillehammer
Olympics with a silver medal. But instead of The Tonight Show,
Picabo appeared on American Gladiators and Sesame Street. "We
said to hell with Letterman and Leno," Stubby says. "We don't
need any late-night, white, yuppie humor. By the 2002 Olympics,
the people watching Leno will be in rest homes. Picabo talked to
the kids. They'll be the mainstream."
Right now Street is mainstreaming in her new three-bedroom house
on the edge of Portland. There is a circular driveway, a stand
of Douglas firs, an Australian cattle dog named Duggan, a hot
tub. The house whispers affluence but screams permanence for a
woman who was bundled up in a Volkswagen bus by her parents and
taken on road trips around the West when she was five weeks old
and who spends winters in the center ring of the itinerant Great
White Circus. Last summer Dee moved from Idaho to Portland
temporarily to get her daughter established. Stubby, a mason,
visits periodically to help out now that he has reconciled with
Dee after pleading guilty to a domestic violence charge last
year. When Picabo moved in, she at last had everything she
needed, except someplace to sit.
So on a brilliant day in September she buzzed the furniture
stores. Street shops the way she skis, making snap decisions at
70 mph. She delays nothing, especially gratification. "I always
told Picabo that one day the money would be spent and the
trophies would be dusty, and if she hadn't had a good time, she
would've screwed up," Stubby says. "Like Ginger Baker [drummer
for the rock group Cream] said, 'You gotta go where you want to
go, do what you want to do.' " On a sprint through her third
store, Street said to no one in particular, "I want it all, and
I want it now."
She finally found her chairs, matching green leather recliners.
The salesman gave her a spiel about credit and layaway, but
Street lays away nothing. She wrote a check and then bolted to
look at a lamp.
"Picabo?" the chair salesman called.
"Yeah," she said, turning around.
His removed his hands from in front of his face and gave her a
dopey look: peekaboo! "Sorry," he said. "I had to do that."
Street grimaced. But she kept the chairs.
Suppose Dee and Stubby had called their daughter Nancy or Jane.
Would she have been a champion? Would kids or Nike love her less?
Just as there are people who are born to be called Rodney or
Edith or Amber, she is a natural-born Picabo even though it took
awhile to get there. She was born at home and named Baby Girl
Street. Passport officials preferred something less generic, so
Dee and Stubby renamed her after a nearby Idaho town, Picabo,
which her parents were told means "shining waters" in the
language of the Sho-Ban, the Native American tribe that once
inhabited the region. If that sounds off-the-wall, you haven't
met the first Street child, originally Baby Boy, then dubbed
Baba Jomo (Stubby also pushed for Juan Way Street). Picabo
already has a name picked out for a daughter, if she has
one--Ayla. "From Clan of the Cave Bear," Picabo says. "Strong
women who did what men did."
Baby Girl was riding trains in Central America when she was
three. Dee and Stubby took their children places, taught them
things Kermit the Frog couldn't. They also grew their own food
and chopped wood back home. The Bormio course was no more
terrifying than having to fight off a white leghorn rooster with
a pitchfork when gathering eggs. There were periodic boxing
matches with neighborhood boys, and four or five of the teeth in
that smile that illuminates skiing aren't her own. There was no
TV at home until she was 14. "Kids would ask, 'Do you have a
doll?'" Street says. "I'd say, 'No, I have a BB gun.'"
Major met Picabo in Park City, Utah, when she was 14, watching a
race. "You can't help but notice someone named Picabo," Major
says. For a dozen years they have moved through the U.S. skiing
hierarchy on parallel tracks. Major has been her coach, her
prod, her guardian angel.
Once a fellow coach told him, "She'll never win. She can't
follow the rules."
"That's why she will win," Major replied.
"I get to stretch the rules because I am special," Street says,
unboastfully, "not because I wanted to be special. I've shown
that on the mountain. Rules are obstacles, things that get in
the way of where I want to go."
"At first I didn't know whether she was a blockhead," Major
says. "She's not. She's stubborn, but she's street-smart, and
she reads people better than anyone I've been around.
"The pattern with Picabo was the phenomenon of the wunderkind.
Picabo burst onto the ski team with natural talent. She threw
herself down the hill. No obstacles. But she relied on natural
talent to keep her on the team. She didn't know the stakes had
been raised. She didn't push herself. She wasn't conditioned
well enough. She was rebelling, asking why should she conform."
The answer came in July 1990, when Major kicked her out of a
training camp in Park City because she was in such sorry shape
that she could not complete simple drills without pain. He
feared she would hurt herself skiing.
Picabo returned to Idaho but didn't tell her parents, who were
living in Hawaii at the time, what had happened. She bunked with
David and Donna Timmons, parents of her best friend, Tiffany,
who was home on summer break from the University of Northern
Arizona. They shared a bathroom. They shared their feelings.
Picabo didn't know what she wanted. Her brain was overloaded
with coaches telling her what to do, what time to get up, what
time to train, what to eat. She had lost control. She was scared.
"Stubby," Tiffany says, "isn't the easiest guy in the world."
No, Stubby wasn't easy. After he learned of Picabo's dismissal
in a chance call to Major weeks later, he offered his daughter a
choice: a) come to Maui and turn her life around, or b) hit the
Picabo chose Camp Stubby. He had her do 50 push-ups and 100
sit-ups before breakfast, run intervals, tread water until
exhaustion and later do more push-ups and sit-ups. She crammed
the equivalent of two years of school into three months.
The training put Street back on the team and was enough to get
her the overall title on the jayvee Nor-Am circuit, but she
wasn't about to cut into Jane Fonda's fitness video market.
Major stopped by Sun Valley, where Dee and Stubby had moved, in
the summer of 1991 and invited Picabo for a run. Halfway through
the run he stopped and told her, "You're no better than a bowler."
Street was almost out of allies. Several U.S. coaches wanted her
off the team because they thought she was lazy. Her Rossignol
ski technician, Mike (Cookie) Kairys, recommended the company
drop her because of her attitude, her lack of results and her
penchant for blowing off steam in language that would make Big
Bird molt. "She couldn't be trusted to get a pair of skis to the
top of the mountain," says Kairys, now one of Street's
staunchest supporters. "In Grindelwald [Switzerland] in 1991 or
'92, she lost her skis."
Street never found the skis, but she did find herself. At the
1993 world championships in Morioka, Japan, she won a silver in
the combined and was 10th in the downhill. At last something
tangible was beside her name. The Lillehammer silver validated
her, but the 1994-95 World Cup season and its six wins proved
her greatness. Now, she says, "I know where I want to go, how to
get to my track of destiny."
She has a way to go, but there's little doubt where she's
headed, especially after her season-opening downhill victory at
Lake Louise on Dec. 3. "When Tomba retires," Stubby says,
"Picabo's it." Picabo. She has made quite a name for herself.