Picabo, in Review

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And now, we wait.

The Olympic teams have been picked, with a few last-minute bonuses (for Austria because, they’re Austria), losses (Breezy Johnson is sadly out with injury) and exchanges (late-charging speed skier Alix Wilkinson is in!) All in all, Team USA has a lot of solid medal contenders, some spirited darkhorses and exciting competitions to watch in an entirely unknown venue.

If you are struggling with how to bridge that gap in your TV viewing from now — post World Cup skiing and football playoffs — until the Olympics take over, I highly suggest warming up your Olympic viewing skills by watching Picabo. The new documentary on Picabo Street is co-directed by Lindsey Vonn, and dives beneath the headlines to tell the remarkable story of Picabo before and after her spectacular ski racing career.

What struck me when watching the documentary, was how much I didn’t know about Picabo — the challenges most alpine skiers in this country could never fathom and, more importantly, the full extent of the turbulence in her home life. Sure, she had financial help and encouragement from the Sun Valley community, as well as the Intermountain skiing community. But she never really had anyone simply taking care of her. Picabo took care of Picabo.

Shortly after Picabo premiered, former Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden revisited the narrative, and his reporting on Street from 24 years ago. Then, he had pulled at the loose strings that were holding the shroud over the Street family drama, the depth of which would play out in the tabloids many years later. His article gives context to the complexity of Street’s family life, and his role in nearly, but not quite, revealing their secrets. Ultimately it has him reconciling with that weight, and with Street, in a thoughtful and thought-provoking read on athletic heroes and those who capture their stories.

This is the untold story of Picabo and her immediate family. Its focus is not the better known details of her skiing career. There are supporting interviews throughout with teammate Heidi Voelker, coaches Herwig Demschar and Paul Major, along with cameos of others who were such a big part of her success: teammate Hilary Lindh; coach Ernst “Poppy” Hager; her Rossignol service man Cookie Kairys; her teammates and her European competition. In this film, the characters in her ski family are minor players, but during that period of her life they played major roles, and Picabo’s legacy is inextricably tied with the US women’s speed team.

GETTING STARTED

As teammates, Picabo and I overlapped for a few years, though mostly at training camps. She is five years younger than me, and was racing Europa Cup when I was on the World Cup. But I knew her from the day she was on the scene. Brash, loud, confident, outspoken, sassy; the up-and-comer with the made-for-fame name had little regard for authority or seniority.

She was also incredibly perceptive. She listened, learned quickly and had a keen memory. We are both Aries, something she always remembered when putting our behaviors and even an occasional argument into context. She spoke in endless unpunctuated sentences, one thought barreling into the next and shoving it aside.

Picabo was imposing physically as well, in an era just post “Eat to Win,” (also referred to as “Eat to be Weak” by another famous teammate), when American female skiers were still encouraged to be lean and mean. The chiseled waif look was celebrated, and more than once Picabo was advised to lose weight. In the film she mentions being sent home from a training camp as a youngster for being “fat and sassy.” I doubt the coaches used those terms, but the admonitions were certainly there. To others, they brought shame, and a sense of defeat, but to Picabo they elicited a kind of flip-em-the-bird mentality (at times backed up by the gesture itself) motivating her to show up at the next camp or race trip stronger, sometimes a few pounds heavier, and always faster

Picabo made it OK for US women to be big, in presence and in stature, and to want to get bigger in both. The physics and the mentality make perfect sense for a downhill racer, but it took Picabo to break through the norms and take them along for the ride.  

SHIFTING GEARS

In 1993, I was being put into pasture as she came onto the track, winning her surprise silver medal in the World Championships. When I switched over from competing to covering the competitions as a journalist with Ski Racing, it was easier to put my competitiveness and jealousy aside and simply appreciate her raw power. I remember watching her accelerate on a gliding section of the 1996 World Championships Downhill in Sierra Nevada, Spain, snow trailing off her skis like wisps of smoke behind rocket ships. She was an unstoppable force.

BUILDING SPEED

Though they reached the top of the sport at the same time, she and Hilary Lindh could not have been more different, personality wise. Both possessed a determination, persistence and dogged dedication to the sport, while approaching it as polar opposites. This immediately preceded the era when US athletes had private coaches and motor homes and entourages. Instead, Street, Lindh and everyone around them had to live together, and operated as a team.

Picabo routinely advised rookies during video and inspection, while Hilary quietly mentored and led by example, both creating a collaborative culture that embraced the power of a rising tide. Together, Picabo and Hilary and their communal ski family planted the American flag at the top of the World Cup speed circuit, paving the way and setting the tone for an army that followed, including Vonn. It is fitting, and in line with the speed team culture, that Vonn is the force behind this tribute.

THE LEGACY

The timing of the documentary brought up a vivid memory of the Olympic team announcement in 1992, in a hotel in Switzerland. Then, 20-year-old Street did not make the team, and was devastated. A year later, she won a World Championships medal, and the following year, in 1994, an Olympic silver medal. Four years later, and no longer a favorite, she won Olympic gold. Her story is a reminder of so many things: the power of persistence and confidence and sheer will; that a lot can happen in a short time; and that legacies can last for a long time.

Picabo, I salute you.

7 thoughts on “Picabo, in Review”

  1. Thanks for the continued Inspiration and awesome writing!!!!
    Loved her book and can’t wait to watch this documentary.

    Most Respectfully,

    Paul Y
    Ski Patrol: BW AV; Ohio
    Pk n Pk; NY

  2. Wow, what a powerful testimony to the resilience of an athlete who defied the norms, the coaches, and the prevailing culture of the U.S.Ski Team.

    So many have similar stories.

    Lee Hall Delfausse

    • Thanks for reading Lee! And yeah, there are a lot of good ones who swim against the tide. It’s nice when they make it through and challenge the norms.

  3. Thanks for reading Paul and I am glad you liked it. I think you will really enjoy the doc. It makes her remarkable accomplishments even more impressive.

  4. Really a terrific piece of writing – I have followed all of the folks mentioned here over the years but this article provides valued insights. I shall, for sure, watch the documentary. THANKS, Edie

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