PICABO STREET WAS A SIXTH GRADER AT Hemingway Elementary in Ketchum, Idaho, 10 years ago when a psychologist visited the school to administer some routine tests. Recognizing the girl as one of the area's top young skiers, he paid her what he thought was a compliment. "So, I hear you're the next Christin Cooper," he said—referring to Ketchum's 1984 Olympic medalist. Picabo (pronounced peek-a-boo) was not impressed. "I told him, 'Not quite,' " she recalls. " 'Christin only got the silver.' "
No one would think of humoring Street anymore. Now 22, she blasted into skiing's top ranks a year ago by capturing the silver medal in the combined (downhill and slalom) at the World Alpine Ski Championships in Japan. Six weeks later, she placed second in a World Cup downhill in Norway. "Being up on the podium was like tasting candy to her," says U.S. women's ski team coach Paul Major. "She's going to do what it takes to get back up there."
To do that, of course, she will have to avoid cruel tricks of fate like the one that befell her two seasons ago when she tried to jerk her skis out from under some heavy bags piled in a van. "The strap broke, and I flew right out the back onto my butt, landing on the ice," she recalls. Within seconds, her legs were numb. "I went, 'Oh my God.' It was one of those sick, deep-in-your-gut feelings."
Luckily, Street had only temporarily compressed a disk and recovered after a few days in bed. She wasn't so lucky the year before when she crashed doing 60 mph during a super-giant slalom race in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and seriously injured her knee. That time, she was out for six months. The accident, she says, "made me really hungry and anxious to be back on my skis again."
Street developed her toughness during a decidedly unconventional childhood. Her parents, Ron "Stubby" Street, 54, a stonemason, and his wife, Dee, 47, a music teacher, moved from Reno to tiny Triumph, Idaho, so they could raise children amid the spectacular mountains. Their first, Roland, a boy, was followed two years later by a girl. This time the Streets decided the child should choose her own name—and only picked one for her when a passport official refused to accept "baby girl Street" on the 2-year-old's application. "She loved playing peekaboo," remembers Dee. "We decided it fit her personality." (They adopted the spelling from a town in Idaho named for a Native American word meaning "shining water.")
Her parents' whimsy aside, the name brought Street misery' at school. Classmates called her Peekabugger and Sneak-a-peek. More than once she came home in tears. "It taught me patience," she says with a laugh.
Street was 6 when her father introduced her to skiing in the huge snow bowls around nearby Sun Valley. To keep up with him, she fearlessly skied flat out, and within a year she was beating much older children in local races. At 15, she was selected for the U.S. junior team. "She learned how to go fast from skiing such a big mountain [Bald Mountain] and letting it rip," says coach Major.
But Street didn't learn to love authority. After years of following training schedules and coaches' orders, she rebelled. In 1990, when she showed up out of shape at the U.S. team's summer training camp in Park City, Utah, she was suspended. "I had gotten to the point where I was sick of being told what to do with my life," she says. She returned to the family home, now in Hailey, Idaho, for several months before deciding to "start doing what was necessary." A new training program paid off: In 1991 and 1992 she won the North American Championship Series, and last year she added the U.S. super-giant slalom title.
In addition to her family, Street's main support is her boyfriend, Mike Makar, a member of the U.S. men's team whom she met at a race in Alaska when he was 12 and she was 14. The two, who started dating four years ago, complement each other. He leaches her to mellow out, says Street, "and I leach him to speak his mind."
She is also learning to lone down her own breathless exuberance. Her hobbies as listed in the 1991 U.S. ski team media guide—"mud wrestling, American Gladiators, and making whoopee with my boyfriend Mike"—last year became: "fishing in the midnight sun in Alaska with Mike."
But the confidence of that self-assured sixth-grader remains in lad as Street approaches medal time at the Olympic Games in Lillehammer. "Whoever can learn [the course] the fastest and then put their guts to it is going to pull it off," she says. There's no question who Picabo has in mind.
TOM CUNNEFF in Hailey
- Tom Cunneff.