Citius, Altius, Picabo

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, November 1994

Citius, Altius, Picabo

On her way to downhill glory and a country and western singing career, Picabo Street, force of nature, brakes for no one
By Lynn Snowden

Picabo Street, the 23-year-old downhill skier who won a silver medal at the Lillehammer Games last winter, is in her natural state at the moment: hovering around the 90 mile-an-hour mark. Unfortunately for me, she's not on skis, but behind the wheel of her black, one-ton Ford F350 diesel truck, and we are barreling down Oregon's I-84, heading home to Hailey, Idaho, from the U.S. Ski Team's summer training camp on Mount Hood. Picabo's driving is much like her skiing: big, aggressive, and faster than most everyone else. She believes she's avoided speeding tickets by having the right attitude. "If you're worried and paranoid about it," she says, "it'll happen. It's like worrying about being injured. I don't care about being pulled over." And so we roar up to the rear bumpers of any drivers who have the nerve to be in the left lane when Picabo Street is behind them.

When you're a woman who goes 80 or 90 mph on skis, life off them must seem a bit sluggish in comparison. "You're going way too slow!" she yells at a guy who has not looked in his rearview mirror lately. If he did look, he'd see a freckled face as open as the sky and beautiful, thick blond hair that keeps getting sucked up and out the window.

"See that Cadillac in front of us?" she says, "I could drive right up and over it." On her left hand, Picabo wears an Olympic ring that bears the Latin phrase citius, altius, fortius. "Faster, higher...and I think stronger," she says. Her ring, and certainly her license plate, should just read citius.

She's blasting her car stereo. "A ten-CD player and tape deck," she says proudly. "I've got two ten-inch subwoofers, two six-inch speakers in the doors, and a Rockford amp under my seat." All this power seems wasted on pop/soul singer Gabrielle (her favorite), so she pops in country fave Patty Loveless and sings along, quite beautifully, to "Mr. Man in the Moon." Picabo's mom, Dee, is a music teacher and Picabo fantasizes about their launching a career, like the Judds. "Get out of my way, you dumb fuck!" she interrupts her song to holler at a guy who hits his brakes in response to her tailgating. Picabo roars around him and flips him off. "Get the fuck out of my way!"

Picabo street nearly stole the show from Nancy and Tonya in Lillehammer. And she didn't even win a gold medal or get caught up in scandal. She skied fast and smiled a lot and hugged her friends. And, of course, she talked freely with reporters about her funky upbringing among hippies, her sassy in-your-face style, and that name.

The story about her name, for the uninitiated, goes like this: She was born in Triumph, Idaho, not far from Sun Valley, in 1971. Originally her parents called her Baby Girl, wanting her to choose her own name when she was old enough. But the plan fell through when the family made a trip to Mexico and needed a name to put on Baby Girl's passport. They settled on Picabo, the name of an Indian tribe in southern Idaho, mostly because they "liked the sound."

Burdening this feisty child with a weird name certainly gave her something to defend. "Oh, I used to beat people up all the time for teasing me," she says, smiling her famously confident smile. "I was always in the principal's office. Then one day he said, Why don't you change your name? I was like, Hey, fuck you, asshole! This is my name! And I'm going to teach everyone in this damn school not to make fun of me just because I have this name, you know?" She says she hasn't seriously brawled with anyone since she was 19, and that was over a guy. "This girl tried to slap me across the face," she says. "I thumped her pretty hard, but she kept coming back for more. Finally I had her on the ground, fixin' to break her arm, until she gave up. To this day I will not hesitate to hurt somebody if need be."

David Letterman pointed out on his show one night that if she married Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe, she'd be Picabo Moe. She giggles uncontrollably. "The thing is," she says, "I used to date Tommy. And my boyfriend called, all mad: 'Did you hear what Letterman said?'"

The boyfriend in question is speed skier Mike Makar, whom she's been dating for four years. "If he was to ask me to marry him, I would," she says. "Right now." Of course, this still wouldn't solve the problem of their almost constant separation. "If he skis fast enough, I'll see him at the world championships and things," says Picabo. Makar's dream is to own a lodge in Alaska and work as a hunting and fishing guide. Picabo figures she'd run the lodge. She's already told me that she had her eye on a career in broadcasting, not to mention the singing career, so I ask how this would work. "Oh," she says, "I'm talking about when we're 35 or 40."

If that seems to be a long way off to her, it's because so much has happened already. By age 11, Picabo was gobbling up junior medals. By 15, she was the third-ranked junior in the country. "I got a cool trophy," she says proudly. Her star continued to rise, and in 1991 and 1992 she won the prestigious North American Championship Series, a sort of domestic World Cup, back to back. In 1993 she took the silver in the combined downhill at the world championships. Then came Lillehammer, and, well, fame. She recently counseled a younger teammate who wished she had her own "service man," a personal ski technician, like Picabo does. "I know it sucks carrying your skis around," Picabo told her. "But ski fast. That's all you've got to do."

Certainly, these are words to live by. That's all Picabo has to do before she can become a broadcaster, country-western singer, and lodge lady. That's all she has to do if she's to win a gold medal and be remembered as more than a footnote in the history of skiing. Picabo could use a win at the world championships held at Sierra Nevada, Spain, in early February. And she'll have to improve her World Cup standings--she finished in an unspectacular eighth place last year in the downhill. "It's not like I'm sitting on top of the world and don't know how in the hell I got there," she says. "I'm stepping on every rung of the ladder. So if I ever slip, I know exactly what to do, because I've been there before. I've kind of already made it to the top." Yeah. Kind of.The words hang there. Then she lays on the horn. "Dude in the little Camry over there," she says, "how's the left lane treatin' ya? Move it."

For the moment, Picabo is enjoying her post-Olympic celebrityhood. She attended a benefit in Los Angeles for children with AIDS and got to meet "Jack and Whoopi," she says as nonchalantly as possible. "And Christian Slater. He's my full-on heartthrob. He kinda realized who I was, but I don't know. He was semi out of it." She giggles. While skiing on Mount Hood, she's often stopped by kids who want her autograph, and she deliberately trains in the lane closest to the public lane so the kids can watch her. This unfortunately means that, the day I attend practice, a good many of the kids hear her scream, "Fuck this!" after a mediocre run. "I felt bad afterward," she says, "but at the time I was into what I was doing." Perhaps not surprisingly, Picabo identifies with the take-no-lip attitude of basketball player Charles Barkley. "On the court, he's very competitive, and I can totally relate to the feelings he gets going."

Her own Barkleyesque stubborn streak can present itself as either unforgiving determination or bullheaded rebelliousness. For a long time, it was clearly the latter. She decided at age nine that she wanted to win a medal in the Olympics, but by age 17, having won virtually every junior race around, she was burned out. "I kind of felt I was skiing for my coaches," she says. "I wasn't skiing for me anymore. And I was like, This bites! I don't want you telling me what to do with my time anymore." Picabo was staying with her best friend's parents while her folks were temporarily living in Hawaii. "All my friends were graduating from high school that year, so everyone was partying," she says. "I thought, Damn, I don't want to miss out on a whole summer like that! It turned out I ended up missing it anyway when the team kicked me out and my dad found out about it. He sent me a ticket and said, 'You're coming to Hawaii right now.'"

While in exile in Hawaii, Picabo was compelled by her father, Stubby, to sit down and write a list of pros and cons regarding her skiing. "The reasons I didn't want to ski," she says, "were that I wanted to party with my friends. I missed being able to hang out and do what everybody else does. I wanted to go to college with my friends. The pros of skiing were that I could be rich and famous one day. I could win a medal in the Olympics. They were just such huge things that I would never want to say 'what if?' about them later in my life. So I was like, OK, I guess I'm skiing."

Picabo came back and knuckled down. "You know, I've had my problems here and there," she says, "but what they can't take away from me is how good I am. I can make it, and they know it. I can't tell you how many times Paul Major, the head coach, wanted to throw me off the team." Her other priority was to regain a life. "I got into talking on the phone to people I missed. I started opening up to my teammates more and spending time with them away from skiing. My results picked up great. And it's just been going up and up and up."

We're now in Boise. it's been a long day in the truck, and because of a convention that's in town, we drive to six different hotels and call as many more before we find what seems to be the last vacancy for miles. After grabbing a quick bite (Picabo orders Mexican, I get fish and chips) we settle into the room, a fairly cramped affair that has two sinks and a large mirror at the foot of the bed. Since Picabo was skiing all morning and driving all afternoon, I tell her that I'll take the fold-out couch. "No, that's not fair," she says. "I have to win it from you! Let's ro-sham-bo." She's referring to a game of rock-scissors-paper. She wins even at this and collapses, giggling, onto the bed. Her nightshirt rides up, revealing the bruises on her thighs, startling in their violence. "Want some Advil?" I ask her. I take some; she doesn't. Experiencing Picabo's endless effervescence for ten hours is like being on a champagne binge. It's fun at first, but a headache may be lurking at the end of it.

"When you take time off from skiing," she says, touching her thighs to watch the bruises change color, "you don't lose your ability or your knowledge. What you lose is the high tolerance for bruises that you build up through a whole season. Bruises on your arms, on your legs. When you crash, you can get real bad burn marks. A thumped head can mean headaches for a season. You build up a tolerance for that pain." She compares the pain of skiing slalom to having your legs whacked by someone wielding a bamboo pole, over and over, first one leg, then the other. Naturally, Nancy Kerrigan springs to mind. Picabo laughs. "I never saw Nancy's leg," she says. "No one did. I don't even know how bad it would have hurt. It probably feels similar to what I've got goin' on right now with both my legs." As for figure skaters in general, Picabo says, "I've never met a normal one yet." She blames this on the fact that they're judged on their appearance. "With me, it's the clock. It doesn't matter how I look. I can't imagine asking judges whether I'm good enough. I have to be able to prove it."

While Picabo knows it's her formidable build (five-foot-seven, 160 pounds) that lends her the power to ski the way she does, she also knows that in our society, to be built that way isn't desirable for a woman. A predictable nickname in school was Thunderthighs. "I try to avoid looking at fashion magazines because then I think, Oh, I'm big, and it gets my confidence down. Yeah, I have big legs," she shrugs. "But my bones don't break as easily. My crashes are huge, but 90 percent of the time I don't get hurt. In one fall I pulled the muscle off the bone, and a doctor said that any other athlete on the team would have had a spiral fracture of the tibia. I kind of see it as a challenge," she goes on, "to make people look at female athletes as role models. We're out there doin' it! Our bodies are healthy, and if they're big, fine." But a moment later, she says more quietly, "I'm a big person, and I always will be. And I sometimes wonder if my boyfriend ever wants anyone...smaller."

I wash up at the sink, and Picabo indulges in what is perhaps her most expensive vice: long-distance telephone calls. I fall asleep on the creaky couch to the sound of Picabo whispering to her boyfriend.

We've timed our arrival in Hailey to coincide with a Jimmy Cliff concert that's being held outside at the track-and-field area of the high school, near the Streets' home. Picabo and her friends have been plotting the logistics for weeks. We meet up with some of the gang for a preconcert dinner at a burger-and-beer joint. In this community of ex-hippies with teenage children, the chief cause of conflict in most households seems to revolve around parents and kids filching one another's marijuana. Who gets to sit where at rock concerts is a close second. "Parents always get to the concerts early and get a good spot down front," says one girl. "Then they complain that the band's too loud!"

The Streets have indeed arrived at the concert grounds early and have chosen a good spot for a blanket and a cooler. It's more than a little relaxing to lie on the grass, view the mountains, and smell the fresh air while listening to reggae music, but it's strange to note that the only black faces present in the whole valley are in the band. "Here," says Stubby Street, surveying the crowd, "it's pretty much white yuppie. Kids are sheltered, so we traveled a lot with ours to show them different cultures, different colors." Food and beer are passed around as people wander from cooler to cooler, waving to neighbors, friends, or friends' parents. The smell of marijuana wafts over, and when it does, heads turn--not in consternation, but to see if they might partake as well. Perhaps in deference to aging eardrums, the band plays softly--so softly, in fact, that we're forced to move right in front of the stage. There, it becomes apparent that Cliff can no longer hit any high notes. But it's a beautiful night, and the Streets--Stubby, Dee, Picabo's brother BaBa, and Picabo--all are smiling.

After the concert, we pile into the Streets' station wagon and almost immediately pass a car that's rather dramatically stuck in a ditch. With nose pointing down and two tires entirely off the ground, it's trapped in such a way that trying to drive it is futile and possibly dangerous. The driver seems to have realized this and is in the process of climbing out when we pass. Dee looks over at her husband, who is looking for a place to stop. "It's Mr. Street to the rescue," she says. But it's Picabo who's already slamming the car door and trotting toward the ditch. She orders the woman back into the car, and instructs her to "turn the wheel this way when you back up, so you don't end up in this hole over here."

"We need muscle," says Dee, who joins Stubby in the ditch. He's poised to shove on the front bumper. The Street family seems to have decided on these positions through telepathy rather than discussion.

"On the count of three," shouts Stubby. "One, two..." At this moment, Picabo leaps up and comes down hard with all her weight on the car's rear bumper, pushing an airborne tire back to earth. "Three!" The tire meets dirt, and the car pops out of the ditch, as Picabo leaps to the side. The whole process has taken less than a minute, and I'm still standing there wondering what I can do to help. Picabo dusts her hands on her shorts, smiles, and swaggers back over. "We're used to getting people out of the snow," she says. "So this is nothing."

Lynn Snowden is the author of Nine Lives: From Stripper to Schoolteacher--My Yearlong Odyssey in the Workplace, published in August by W. W. Norton.

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