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Street runs from eccentric to enduring

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002


SALT LAKE CITY -- She will stand on top of a mountain, and she will look upon her world once more. She will pause, serious and silent for a change, to gather herself. She will take a moment to study her path.

From there, Picabo Street will be able to see the end.

It ends Monday. Wrap it in glory or in heartache, and she has seen her share of both, the women's downhill event will be the Last Ride of Picabo Street. After this, the girl who won't stop talking will have only this to say: Goodbye.

Here is your sentimental favorite. How can you not pull, as hard as gravity, for Street to fly down the hill? How can you not want one more medal for a skier who will not stay down?

Do you believe in happy endings? Picabo does. Even now, she visualizes that last trip down the mountain, ripping and rocking, and it sounds very much like the final scene in a movie.

"I believe in destiny," Street said. "I'm always trying to figure out how much to try to control that destiny, and how much to just turn myself over to it.

"When I think about my race, it's perfect. Perfect. Are you kidding me? It's like Michael Jordan hitting his last shot. That's how you want to go out."

Sometimes, however, the images change. This is an older, wiser Street, one who admits she has tasted fear, and there are times she sees this race another way.

"Sometimes when we visualize ourselves running the course, we catch an edge and hit the fence," Street said. "Then you say, "Wait, wait, wait, wait -- no, no, no.' Then you go back up and start again."

As much as anyone, Street knows the way a trip down the mountain can go. She has had success: a silver medal in Lillehammer, a gold in Nagano. And she has suffered. She has had four major knee injuries and in her last one, in 1998, they carried her from the mountain in a helicopter.

She tore all four ligaments in her right knee and broke her left femur so badly a metal plate was inserted. It took five surgeries and 33 months of rehabilitation to put her back together. Noted surgeon Richard Steadman called it "the most horrific combination of injuries I've ever seen."

For many of us, it seemed that grisly footage of a broken Street being airlifted away would be the final one of her career. She would not allow that, however.

Here she is, then, at 30, hoping destiny will take a hand once again.

Oh, she isn't a favorite. Odds are, she'll finish in a nine-way tie for 18th. But if you pull for the good story, if you pull for the familiar face, then you have to pull for Street.

She is 30, thinking about marriage and life after competition. Still, she is that funny, friendly, frenetic skier America has come to know over the past eight years. She still looks as if she is the love child of Howdy Doody and Dharma. She still talks as if she is trying to cram 10 minutes of information into every 30-second sound bite.

She will tell you about the Statue of Liberty painted onto her helmet. She will tell you about how, and why, she names her skis. She will tell you about growing older in a sport that looks down on it. She will tell you this all in about 18 seconds.

Once, she was the skier you knew because of her quirky background. She was the daughter of hippies who didn't even have a name until she was 3; her parents called her "Baby Girl." She was different, fresh as you might expect from a skier who grew up poor in a rich kid's sport.

Now, she is the most recognizable face in American skiing. She has become a star. She has been quirky. Now, she would like to be known as resilient.

And wouldn't it be great to see her smile one more time?

"I wouldn't have gone through what I've gone through if the Olympics weren't here," Street said. "If I win a medal, it will be almost too much to ask. I'll take the gold, I'll take the bronze, silver, whatever. I'll take finishing the race and giving my mom a hug.

"If I don't win a medal, I'll have a moment at the finish where I get all bummed. But I'll leave it right there and go back to enjoy the Olympics like everybody else."

Should Street win, should she even medal, it would be the finest moment of her career. Only months ago, she admits, she was afraid. Her accident had crept inside her head, and at times, she would catch herself being cautious, careful.

"Being introduced to fear at age 29 years old was definitely a little bit late in life," Street said. "That made it hard. People would ask me all the time, "How do you deal with fear, how do you deal with fear?' And I couldn't. I never had it. I never had fear. Not until my '98 crash."

She remembers the instant before her crash, wondering if she would be paralyzed. She remembers how long it took her to mend physically, and how long it took mentally.

To Street, it was important to go out this way, streaming toward one more finish line, trying to make one more memory. Who wants to be remembered for an accident?

Someone asked Street if she won a medal if she might, like Jordan, forget about retirement.

"I'm really tired of living out of a bag," Street said. "My dogs are getting old, my parents are getting old. There are days when I think, "Gosh, I just really haven't figured it out yet and I really want to see if I can be a champion again.' I know that my body could carry me for that. But I don't know if my heart and my mind could."

This is it, then. This is goodbye. This is the final chapter to a nice little story.

One more ride to take, one more medal to tame.

Straight and fast, Picabo. Travel straight and fast.

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