Happy 46th birthday to the first American woman to win the World Cup downhill title.
Picabo [PEE-kuh-boo] Street had the ego, drive and resolve that made her the most dominant skier in her sport. She joined the U.S. Ski Team in 1989 at 17 and made her World Cup debut three years later. In 1993, Street won a gold medal in super G at the U.S. Championships and took silver in the combined at the World Championships in Japan. One year later, she became a household name in America after capturing the silver medal in downhill at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. In 1995, she became the first American to win the World Cup championship in women’s downhill, a feat she repeated in 1996. Street reached the pinnacle by winning the gold medal in super G at the 1998 Nagano Games before injuries derailed her career. Displaying dogged determination, she battled back to make the 2002 Olympic Team before retiring.
Born at home in Triumph, Idaho – a small town in the Rockies — on this date in 1971, Street was the second of two children born to hippie parents. Her mother, Dee, was a music teacher and her father, Stubby, was a stonemason. Nameless for the first few years of her life, she was called “baby girl” until three, when she was required to have a name in order to get a passport. Her counterculture parents chose “Picabo,” the name of a nearby town that means “shiny waters” in Sho-Ban, a Native American tribe that once inhabited the region. The Streets grew their own food and chopped their own wood for heat and cooking. The family had no television until Picabo was 14.
With a population of 50, there were eight kids in Triumph in the 1970s. Seven of them – including Roland Street, who is one year older than Picabo – were boys. Picabo was a tomboy, racing BMX bikes, playing tackle football, and boxing – which cost her several teeth. She started skiing at nearby Sun Valley at six. From the outset, speed was her passion, and she was beating much older girls by the time she was ten.
Street won the downhill and super G at the 1988 National Junior Championships, then joined the U.S. Ski Team the following year. She was suspended from the national team in 1990 for lack of discipline, poor physical condition, and a bad attitude. It was a wake-up call for the immensely talented Street. She returned in 1991 and claimed third in the U.S. Championships. By 1992, she was ranked eighth in the world.
After winning the super G at the 1993 U.S. Championships and claiming silver in the combined at the World Championships the same season, the skiing world began to take notice of Picabo Street. In 1994, the bubbly and vivacious Street was a delightful diversion from the Tonya Harding – Nancy Kerrigan soap opera that preoccupied the American public during the Winter Games in Lillehammer, capturing a silver medal in the downhill event. Riding the momentum of that success, she won the World Cup title, becoming the first American woman to win a season title in a speed event. She repeated as downhill champion the following year before claiming bronze in super G and gold in downhill at the 1996 World Championships in Spain.
In December 1996, Street tore an ACL in her left knee during a training run in Vail. Following reconstructive surgery, the 5’7”, 158-pound rocket spent the following year rigorously rehabbing in the pool, on land, and doing volleyball workouts. Street estimates she spent nearly 11,000 hours on treadmills, Stairmasters, and stationary bikes preparing to return for the 1998 Olympics. In January 1998, she crashed into a fence at 75 mph in Are, Sweden during her last pre-Olympic competition. Suffering a concussion while being knocked unconscious, she was otherwise unscathed, proving to herself that she was 100 percent healthy. At the Nagano Games one month later, she won an Olympic gold medal in super G and finished sixth in downhill.
Four weeks after winning Olympic gold, Street veered off course during the final downhill of the 1998 World Cup season at Crans-Montana, Switzerland. She crashed into a fence and broke her left femur in nine places. “I was lying there,” recalled Street, “and I could feel this bone trying to protrude out of my quad.” She also tore the ACL in her right knee and needed several operations to fix the leg. Nearly 28 at the time, Street’s return to competitive world-class skiing seemed unlikely. The damage was so severe that the first order of business was just getting the knee to work again, let alone skiing on it.
Picabo Street was in rehabilitation for two years following her accident in Switzerland. Determined to ski in the 2002 Olympics, she dedicated herself to recovery and training. She returned to finish seventh at a World Cup downhill race in Switzerland, finished fifth at an event in Canada, then won a Super Series downhill event in Utah in March 2001. “You put a roadblock in front of me,” said Street, “and I’m going to find a way to either get around it, over it, under it, or plow right through it if I have to.” The 30-year-old qualified for the 2002 U.S. Women’s Olympic team, but her dream of becoming the first American skier to win a medal in three straight Winter Olympics ended when she finished 16th in downhill in Salt Lake City. It was a disappointing finish to one of the most storied careers in U.S. skiing when Street announced her retirement following the 2002 Olympics.
The most dominant downhill racer of her era, Street captured nine World Cup wins, including six straight downhills. In the mid-1990s, Street was introduced to then-ten-year-old Lindsey Kildow [later Vonn], who would go on to become the most decorated female downhill ski racer in history. The meeting made such an impression that Street – whom Lindsey considers her heroine and role model — later became Vonn’s mentor. Picabo Street was inducted into the U.S Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and worked as an analyst for Fox during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.