Picabo Street, who in the past two years has turned skiing on
its head, thought about turning herself on her head for a
change. As someone with an acute sense of the symbolic, she
considered doing a headstand atop the helmet on which her high
school art teacher had painted a globe. Street would have been
on top of the world, but she settled for putting one foot on the
helmet. Anyone who didn't understand the gesture after the
women's downhill on Sunday could simply glance at the scoreboard
at the World Alpine Ski Championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain.
There at the top was Street's name, the winner, .57 of a second
faster than her archrival, Katja Seizinger of Germany. In the
eye-blink world of ski racing, the margin was so large that one
could imagine Street's art teacher, John Blackman, having time
to paint Gibraltar, the Grand Canyon and the Gobi Desert on
Picabo's helmet before Seizinger crossed the finish line.
The victory was pure Picabo: emphatic, aggressive and flavored
with a dollop of danger as she leaned backward on the final
jump, an error that could have landed her on Antarctica. The
passive Veleta course was ideal for her--long (11,141 feet), with
five jumps and sweeping turns that allowed skiers to stay in
their tucks on the hard-packed but not icy run. No one tucks
like Street, who is among the sport's most aerodynamic skiers.
Her knees stretch wider than her shoulders, and her body seems
to sink to the snow.
Street waved a pole in triumph when she saw her time, 1:54.06.
The victory was only part of an embarrassment of U.S. wonders.
For the first time in 11 years, there were two American
medalists in a major race as Hilary Lindh, who hadn't had a
top-three finish this season, placed third, edging Kate Pace
Lindsay of Canada. And Megan Gerety finished fifth. The
Austrians? Their top finish was a tie for eighth. The Swiss? No
better than seventh. Americans were so at home, this could have
been the state of Nevada, not Sierra Nevada.
February 26, 1996
The downhill enhanced America's reputation as skiing's big-race
nation, always ready to pounce at the Olympics and the worlds.
"We don't have the pressure the big [skiing] countries have,"
said Lindh. "A medal is a bonus, not something anyone expects."
Unless the skier is Street, whose past six downhills have
produced two wins, two seconds and a third. Barring injury,
she's a near lock for a second straight overall downhill title,
yet she came to Spain sure she was having a bad year. Her
mother, Dee, who has a firm grip on reality, saw that the World
Cup wasn't half empty but nearly full. "I had to explain to her
that a down year for her is a killer season for anyone else,"
Dee said Friday.
"It took me awhile, but I've come to terms with the fact that
I'll probably never top last year or even match it," said
Street, who won six of nine downhills in '95 and became the
first American to win the World Cup downhill title. "But I've
learned a lot about myself this year. When somebody beats me,
I've realized it's something I've done more than anything that
they did. As long as I'm healthy, I'm the skier to beat."
Street almost wasn't healthy for the downhill. During course
inspection for Friday's training run, she hit some of the fresh
powder that had blanketed this Andalusian corner of southeast
Spain. Thwack. She did a face plant in the snow. Andreas
Rickenbach, a U.S. coach, ran Street through an impromptu
neurological exam. "What town are we in?" he asked.
"Spain," she replied.
Close enough. Street pulled herself up, ignoring bruised ribs, a
bad hip and a wonky hamstring, to become the first American to
win a downhill at the worlds. She looked every bit a champion if
you didn't mind the fact that the blue of the helmet clashed
with the yellow racing suit. Street said the helmet will be
retired, either offered to a museum or auctioned off to benefit
U.S. skiing. Like Street, it is one of a kind.