On her way down a mountain in Chile, during a training run designed to test her surgically repaired left knee, Olympic silver medalist Picabo Street skied to a stop, her knee throbbing. She sat down in the snow, covered her face with her hands, and began to sob.

Street's knee has improved from that day in early September, when a training setback and frustration boiled over so violently she had to be counseled off the slopes by a coach. But even as she gradually returns to racing form -- she said this week she is about 93 percent recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered last December -- she can't help but notice the speeding approach of the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, which begin in early February.

"She's already talked about the fact of winning a gold medal and I say, Be quiet,' " said Jim Tracy, the U.S. women's downhill coach. "It doesn't do any good -- let the pressure fall on somebody else. She's in rehabilitation now, training, and she'll be there until she's at 110 percent of her ability. But once the gates open, she'll be flying. People will be amazed."

Street, the 1996 world downhill champion, fully intends by February to be in medal contention in Nagano. Of course, she also fully intended to make her way down that slope in La Parva, Chile, three weeks ago, before pain encouraged her to take a seat in the snow. The pain, it was later discovered, was caused by scar tissue from her December surgery. It gradually dissipated with dry-land training.

"I'm a racehorse," said Street, who had a similar knee injury in 1989. "I didn't want my leg telling me I can't go. We're in cahoots now."

Still, as the ski racing season approaches its late November start, she has come to realize that her ongoing rehabilitation will intersect with her Olympic Games preparation. Ideally, she would spend the next three months racing herself into peak competitive form. In reality, she has not been able to meet the recovery schedule she set for herself.

"I battled depression within the first month," Street said. "It was watching my body change after five or six years of vigorous training and the beef I had layered myself with. I just shred off layers, especially off my left leg. It went from large and tight to small and mushy. I'd catch myself sitting by myself in my room, looking at my little, atrophied leg and just crying."

That state of mind didn't last, however. Street eventually adjusted to the slow pace of rehabilitation. Besides the full tear of her anterior cruciate, she also suffered a partial tear of the medial collateral ligament. But once she returned to the slopes in early July, as giddy as a child about being back on skis, she expected swifter progress.

"She's really had to swallow a few hard pills and some she hasn't wanted to," Tracy said. "She likes to do what she sets out to do. It was hard for her to realize . . . she wasn't going to be ready at the beginning of the season and wasn't going to be in top form before the first race {a Super-G on Nov. 27 at Mammoth Mountain, Calif.}."

Street has never been comfortable with other forces controlling her life, least of all things like injured knees. From the time she was born, she was given almost complete freedom to make her own decisions. Her parents, Dee and Stubby, didn't even give her a name. Instead, they called her Baby Girl, intending that she would eventually select a name. (Passport requirements for a trip to Mexico demanded they abandon that plan, however. They named her after the nearby town of Picabo, Idaho, and called her brother, then Baby Boy, Baba Jomo.)

Street has not lost her boundless enthusiasm nor her ability to fill reporters' notebooks with stunning rapidity. Yet Street, 26, is no longer the rebellious, up-and-coming kid skier who could simultaneously mesmerize and antagonize. In 1990, she was suspended from the national team's summer camp for being out of shape. In 1992, she was put on probation for her attitude.

This year, as the most veteran female skier, she has been determined to assume a mature leadership role.

She chastises herself for spilling her emotions in Chile.

"I have to be more professional than that," she said. "I have to be in control and look at the big picture all of the time."

Street has made every attempt to prepare herself for the Winter Games. Soon after her surgery early this year, she went to Nagano and skied the Olympic course -- riding on the back of assistant coach Andreas Rickenbach. They stopped to survey several spots.

"I've already got two or three seconds, spots I know I've already got an edge on everybody, just because people don't think, and I do think," Street said. "I was good in geometry in school. That was one of the signs I was going to be a good downhiller."

The turning point in her career is usually considered the eighth place she won in a 1993 World Cup downhill. The following year, the Lillehammer Games represented the break-the-bank point. Street won a silver in an unexpectedly dominant year for the U.S. team. Diann Roffe-Steinrotter added a gold in the Super G and Tommy Moe won a silver and gold. Freestyle skier Liz McIntyre added a silver in moguls, giving the United States five medals, tying its highest tally -- five at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo.

"It didn't really hit me that hard until I got off my {return{ flight in either New York or Chicago," said Street, who expects to continue in skiing long enough for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. "Two airline attendants met me at the gate and ushered me through the airport. I realized, wow, my life has changed."

Since that success, however, Street and Moe each suffered knee injuries. (Moe, who suffered his injury 3 1/2 years ago, says he feels completely healthy.) Roffe-Steinrotter retired. Hilary Lindh, the most decorated female skier in United States history, also retired. The decimated U.S. ski team had a terrible season on the World Cup circuit last year. "I'm looking for the top 20 or top 15 through December," Street said. "Then, in January, that's when the hammer comes down and I start expecting myself on that podium in every downhill race." CAPTION: U.S. silver medalist Picabo Street is all smiles because her left knee is nearly healed. CAPTION: Of her knee rehabilitation, Picabo Street says: "I battled depression within the first month. . . . looking at my little, atrophied leg and just crying."