The mountain climber

Ronald Atkin meets a battle-scarred survivor determined to return to the summits
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The Independent Online

For Picabo Street, the shadows of sport are anathema. She belongs in the sun, on the dazzling slopes of the ski world, hurtling to glory and, occasionally, to hospital. So for Picabo (yes, it really is pronounced Peek-a-boo) the past 18 months since she was injured in a career-threatening crash in Switzerland have been a fretful and painful time, building towards the moment when she first buckles on the skis and steps on to the snow again.

For Picabo Street, the shadows of sport are anathema. She belongs in the sun, on the dazzling slopes of the ski world, hurtling to glory and, occasionally, to hospital. So for Picabo (yes, it really is pronounced Peek-a-boo) the past 18 months since she was injured in a career-threatening crash in Switzerland have been a fretful and painful time, building towards the moment when she first buckles on the skis and steps on to the snow again.

That moment is now for the freckle-faced, 28-year-old American extrovert and Olympic champion. When the World Championship season begins in two weeks' time in Street's home town of Park City, Utah, Picabo will be there.

Not competing. Not yet. While her rivals zoom in pursuit of points she will mark the occasion by showing them she is on the recovery road. "I will put skis on my feet and slide around but I won't compete until this time next year. I aim to free ski throughout the season, doing specific training to change myself into a more efficient and dynamic skier.

"But I've got to listen to my body. I've taken some bad hits in the past couple of years and my body does not like it. Sometimes the smartest race, your best race, is the one you don't ski. I'm getting my head and body together and I'm not rushing this time, not pushing my body to recover quicker than it can."

The 5ft 7in Street's stocky body suffered the first of those bad hits at Vail, Colorado, in December 1996. Here is how she recalls it: "I was so in control, going so fast, then I hit a bump at around 95 miles an hour and suddenly there I was, going about three feet off the ground, windmilling and everything. I knew that as soon as I landed I was going to blow out one leg, maybe both. That was the only question, one or both."

Picabo was lucky that time. She merely tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, and the woman whose racing helmet bears the image of a snarling tiger's head was soon plotting a return to the level which had already brought three World Cup downhill wins in the new season before she fell.

At the urging of her coach, Jim Tracy, Picabo followed what she called "a conservative path". She did not worry about the 1997-98 World Cup season, instead the emphasis was on the Nagano Olympics in February 1998. The plan worked beautifully. With her hair tinted red, white and blue, and the tips painted gold, silver and bronze, she won the Super G gold medal, albeit by an Olympic skiing record for narrowness, 0.01 of a second over Austria's Michaela Dorfmeister.

A month later, at an event in the Swiss resort of Crans Montana, Picabo crashed again. "Immediately upon impact, and during the next 45 minutes I lay waiting for the helicopter, I had several thoughts run through my brain.

"One of the last ones was: 'I hate this sport. I can't believe this is what I have been dealt.' When I blew my knee out at Vail I didn't even get mad. This time I punched the ground."

The reason for that was because this time Picabo had suffered more serious damage, a broken left femur and torn ligaments in her right knee. "I couldn't walk for a while afterwards, so if I wanted to go anywhere it was in a wheelchair. So I didn't go anywhere. I have been doing weights in the gym and some hiking lately but my legs still feel really weak."

Picabo's intention is to be back in the United States team by the time of the 2002 Olympics at Salt Lake City. "That is right around the corner from my house and is the main reason why I am coming back to the sport. Also, I am a fighter and I am not going to let something bug me or scare me. It is a huge handicap being away for so long but I am going to charge hard to overcome it and I know now what it takes to do it. This is the biggest challenge of my life, but I am definitely ready."

She has been ready, it seems, since her conception, which occurred in a tent 8,000 feet up in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho where her parents, Stubby and Dee, products of the flower-power Sixties, sat awaiting their unemployment cheques. Stubby, who delivered Picabo, had this parental philosophy for Picabo and her brother: "We let them hit the wall, taste life, take their licks, fall on their butts. Then we'd pick them up and let them see what they learned from it all."

Neither child was named at birth but when the Streets decided to sample life in Mexico a decision had to be taken. "Baby Girl wouldn't have looked good in a passport," said Picabo. "My parents wanted to let my brother and I help choose our own names but they couldn't wait." So the three-year-old girl was named after the flyspeck town of Picabo, Idaho, through which Stubby and Dee had passed while eloping. It is a Shoshone Indian word meaning shining waters. Her brother was called Baba Jomo but not before Stubby had seriously considered Juan Way Street.

So, then, Picabo, wouldn't you have preferred a more normal name? "Yes, there were times when Elizabeth would have been much better for me," she says. "Sometimes I feel I have to be different because I am Picabo and nine times out of ten it works. But, one or two days a month, I'm Elizabeth because I'd just like not to be in the spotlight."

The spotlight's glare has rarely been far from Picabo since, as a child, she joined her Sun Valley school's ski programme. She finished fifth in the slalom at the 1990 world junior championships but that year was thrown off the US team for being overweight, undermotivated and foul-mouthed. "They thought I was a dirtbag," she said. "I had to prove to them I wasn't."

The proof was submitted through sheer unorthodoxy. One US team coach said Picabo would never win titles because she couldn't follow the rules. "Rules are obstacles," she retorted as she threw herself down mountainsides. "I get to stretch the rules because I am special." She proved that in 1994 by winning the downhill silver at the Lillehammer Olympics before becoming world downhill champion of 1995-1996, the only American woman ever to win that competition and the first American, male or female, to take a World Cup title in more than a decade.

The Swiss dubbed the inspired Picabo "Crazy Red Hen", to the Austrians she was "Freckle-faced Jet Pilot" and the Italians twinned her with their own hero, Alberto Tomba. A banner at the Bormio World Cup races pronounced them "beautiful and invincible". Tomba, whom she refers to endearingly as Bert, was her closest friend in those heady days.

Then came Vail and Crans Montana, the pain and the battle for recovery. As Jim Tracy says: "There's no reason to hurry back. You can be tough as nails but you can be dumb as nails, too, and nobody has ever accused Picabo of being dumb. She knows what she's got to do."

Picabo has filled in the recovery time with TV commentating and made several commercials. "It is amazing that I am still such a high commodity," she said. Perhaps you could put it down to the personality. Or the name.

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