Winter Olympics: Return of Street cred

Andrew Longmore reports on a shining example to the powers of recovery
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The Independent Online
THE name is unmistakeable, the smile unforgettable. But at times over a barren, frustrating year past, she must have craved anonymity, a state of grace not easily granted to Picabo Street from Triumph, Idaho. Picabo is American Indian for Shining Water. Clearly, Street's parents saw the smile before Nike's advertising department.

The Olympic downhill silver medallist and twice World Cup champion, the most charismatic woman skier to emerge from the United States in decades, has not required her smile much since the snap of a cruciate ligament in a fall drained the American's effervescence and halted her career 14 months ago. At the time Picabo was 25 and the only female athlete endorsed by Nike.

For a middle-class all- American sweetheart bursting with vim - she lives in the raisin country of Sun Valley, after all - the inactivity was cruel. "I'd catch myself sitting in my room looking at my little atrophied left leg and I'd just start crying," she said. From the pain of the physio's couch or beneath the sweat in the weights room, Nagano in Japan seemed as distant as the moon, the chance of another Olympic medal a mere pipedream.

The Olympics is now less than a week away and last Thursday, in Sweden, Street posted the fastest time in a downhill training run, not conclusive proof of competitive rehabilitation, but a quantum leap from the depression caused by the last-minute postponement of her much-hyped comeback on Mammoth Mountain, California, last November.

Street wept tears of anger, so did the assembled US media and the sponsors. The decision was made by Erwig Demschar, a forthright, hard-bitten Austrian who has coached the US women's team for the past four years, and, deep down, Street knew the truth. "I was not ready for it," she said later. "I didn't want to face the pressure of coming back when all the media and everyone would have been right on top of me." But that did not stop the tantrums.

"She's a crazy lady, you know, and she can be a bit wild at times," Demschar said. "You can safely say I was not the most popular Austrian in the States that week, but this isn't a popularity contest. Her mind was ready, but her body was not. She didn't appreciate my decision. It was a serious crisis."

Not until Val d'Isere in December did the experienced Austrian sense that the old confidence and consistency was beginning to return. Tenth place in the downhill was followed by an 11th position in the Super-G the following day. The shivers, as Demschar calls them, were being calmed. "You can see it in their eyes when an athlete is ready to go again," he added. "When a skier has a crash, it is understandable they get a little scared and the only way to ease that is to put in the miles. We have been missing the miles, still are, but the good thing is that we can use Picabo's experience to take a few short cuts.

"We'd had so many setbacks along the way. In South America in a training camp during the summer, she couldn't train because her knee was hurting. She'd train for two or three days, then have to hang out for another two when normally she would be doing five days in a row before taking a day off. It was really hard for her and, at times, I thought she wouldn't make it at all."

Whatever semblance of form seeps back during the final preparations - she was slightly concussed yesterday after falling in the downhill at Are, in Sweden - the Olympics will come a month too soon for Picabo. Courage and a growing maturity born of adversity will have to compensate for a shortage of race fitness. It will be hit or miss on the day, like a concert pianist not finger perfect every time.

"She's maybe not a better skier now than she was," Demschar said. "But her tactical approach is perfect, the way she inspects the course, talks to the service guy about what skis she wants, what line she takes down the course. She's street smart and she's a better listener now, for sure." Chances of a medal? "About 50-50," Demschar says. The odds on Shining Water are improving day by day.