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  Street Goes Straight — to Silver in Downhill

By Angus Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 1994; Page D1

 Picabo Street's silver in the downhill was one in a string of happy surprises for the U.S. Alpine team in 1994.
(Franco Debemardi/Reuters)
LILLEHAMMER, Norway, Feb. 19 — The latest glory for the soaring U.S. Alpine skiing team came today from a freckled free spirit out of the Idaho mountains whose history reads like a manual from the hippie counterculture.

Picabo Street (pronounced Peekaboo, as in the baby game) rocketed down the women's Olympic downhill to a silver medal, fourth Alpine prize of the Games for a U.S. team whose aspirations were modest coming in, but whose performance now borders on historic.

"We thought if we could win just one medal, we'd be happy," said women's coach Paul Major. "A lot of good teams are going to leave here without any."

Not the Americans. With two golds and two silvers in the bank, U.S. skiers need just one more Alpine medal in the next eight days to match their most successful Olympics ever, the 1984 Games in Sarajevo, when skiers took three golds and two silvers.

Street, 22, is the newest in a string of happy surprises, starting with Tommy Moe, who took gold and silver last week after a career on the circuit without a win, and Diann Roffe-Steinrotter, who won her first race in nine years for a gold medal in women's Super G on Thursday.

Street fits right in. She hasn't won a world circuit event in her two years on the tour; her best finish was second in a combined event at last year's world championships in Japan. But her practice times on the downhill were excellent here, concluding with the best time of the day in the final run Friday.

She was confident, she admitted, but wildly nervous before the start. "I must have told myself 1,000 times, 'Relax, relax,' " before she forged onto the steep downhill run as the day's eighth starter.

Street shot through the first half of the run without a hitch but ran so fast into the tricky section called "the corkscrew" near the bottom that she got ahead of herself in the gates and barely salvaged a jump.

"She really shanked it at the bottom," said Major. "She almost came to a stop at the end of that one jump. If she hadn't had that, she'd have been in there fighting for the gold."

Still, the run was just 66/100ths of a second behind gold medalist and prerace favorite Katja Seizinger of Germany, whose flawless descent left knowledgable ski fans wondering how anyone in the field of 48 could improve on it.

Italy's Isolde Kostner was a quarter-second behind Street for the bronze. Italian Bibina Perez gave both a scare with a blistering run, but she was running a fraction too fast to survive and skidded out in a spectacular crash.

With Perez down, the medalists seemed safe and the celebrating began at the finish area. Street's father, Roland, popped up in a long gray ponytail and bushy gray beard, draped in an aging U.S. flag he said he'd bought 10 years ago when his daughter first announced she would someday ski in the Olympics.

Son Baba's ponytail was red, like his sister's, and he wore patched wool Army trousers. Mother Dee wore a foxfur coat.

The Streets are American orginals who packed into the deserted mining town of Triumph, Idaho, in 1967 to raise a family. They grew broccoli and potatoes in a hardscrabble garden, chopped wood to cook and heat with and raised young the old-fashioned way.

Picabo was born at home in the town 12 miles from the Sun Valley ski area and learned to ski at her father's side."I don't think either of the kids ever had a babysitter," said Roland Street, a stonemason whose nickname is Stubby. "You listen to them breathe when they're babies, you put 'em to bed at night and the next thing you know they're gone. We didn't want to miss a minute of it."

With 35 people in Triumph, the youth population was small and Picabo was the only girl. "I had to start every race on the same line with everybody else," she said, crediting her battle to beat the boys with her competitive drive.

Dee Street said her son was always hungry and her daughter was always taking chances. "I had two goals: keep him fed and keep her alive."

The Streets traveled the land in a pickup looking for work when the kids were young, and only gave them official names when crossing the border to Mexico grew problematic. "We were going to let them name themselves," said Roland Street, "but we had to get them passports and, you know, get into the system."

Dee picked Picabo, which means "shining waters" in an Indian dialect.

"We never had money," Stubby said. "I didn't try to come back from trips with anything more than we started with. That way, we could keep it all out there ahead of us."

The philosophy rubbed off on his daughter, who is known on the team for her nonstop chattering and cocky good cheer. "She's a trip," said teammate Julie Parisien, shaking her head. "Picabo's great."

But Street had problems adjusting to the restrictions of the U.S. team. She was sent home four years ago for failing to work hard in summer camp, and her father told her then to make up her mind and go all out, or quit.

Street made her choice and has spent the four years since trying to live down a reputation as a speed merchant without technical skills. "I'm extremely happy," she said today. "I made it a mission to learn to ski on hard snow and technical courses. I was tired of hearing I was a glider who couldn't turn."

Today she passed a tough test. The women's downhill originally was slated for a far milder slope at nearby Hafjell, but women skiers protested last year they wanted more challenge and the race was moved to the men's course at Kvitfjell.

Both Street and Seizinger expressed pleasure they'd shown the world women can handle a slick, steep course and called for more women's downhill runs like the one here.

But it didn't help the second-best American, Hilary Lindh, downhill silver medalist at the 1992 Games in Albertville, France, who said the run was too technical and tight for her to exploit. She wound up seventh.

The next challenge for the high-flying U.S. team is Sunday's downhill portion of the two-day women's downhill/combined event, where Major said Parisien looks strong. She's been having the worst year of her career, but the coach said the way things are going, it concerns him not a whit.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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