Skiing: Outta My Way, Girlfriend!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1996

Skiing: Outta My Way, Girlfriend!

Hilary Lindh is the most successful woman downhiller in U.S. history. So why is she trying so hard to play catch-up with Picabo?
By Hal Clifford

"I always wind up looking like a cold, hard, never-have-fun person," complains Hilary Lindh of life in the considerable shadow of Her Alpine Brazenness, Picabo Street. "But I can't change my personality, and I'm not going to start selling myself left and right. The only thing I can do is focus on my skiing."

For all intents and purposes, that speak-softly-but-carry-a-big-stick formula has been pretty good to the 26-year-old Alaskan during her 12 years on the U.S. Ski Team. The most successful American downhiller in history in terms of World Cup points earned, Lindh boasts a résumé that includes a silver medal in the 1992 Winter Olympics and a second place (behind Street) in last year's World Cup downhill standings. But unfortunately for Lindh, who has said that this ski season may be her last, it's suddenly late in the game for understatement. If the tall, stoic skier wants to be remembered as something more than an also-ran to the relative-newcomer Street, she has about eight weeks to put up or...well, put up.

Interestingly, Lindh's mandate mirrors that of the whole U.S. Ski Team, which after a decade as the Rodney Dangerfield of the World Cup circuit is facing a now-or-never urgency this winter. In what's been called a high-water mark in U.S. ski-racing history, American men and women won 11 World Cup races last winter, the best showing since 1983, when the team took 17 events largely thanks to Phil Mahre and Tamara McKinney. Among the success stories this time around is 27-year-old downhiller Kyle Rasmussen, whose creaky back nearly caused him to quit two years ago but who bounced back to take two World Cup races last year. For the second year in a row, AJ Kitt won the downhill at the World Cup stop at Aspen, only to have his win taken away on a technicality. And Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe was respectable all season long. Of course, there was also Street, with six downhill wins, and Lindh, with two. And therein lies the pressure: Suddenly, the team has something to defend.

"We have the strongest team we've had in the past decade," says coach Paul Major. "But when you step into the starting gate, you start all over. Last year's results matter--but they really don't."

What will it take to repeat--or better yet to improve on--last year? A lot of things, from avoiding injuries to beating back colds and flu on the grueling European circuit. It will also mean feeding off internal rivalry. The friction between Lindh and Street has ranged from downright cattiness to its current cool civility. But they have patched things up since two years ago, when Lindh was recovering from a knee injury and Street, apparently trying to extend an olive branch, confessed in a team meeting that she had once cried for her hobbled teammate. After which Lindh, uneasy with her rival's I-feel-your-pain sentiments, chuckled quietly.

"She laughed at me," Street fumed to reporters later. For her part, Lindh blamed the incident on embarrassment, not malice. "It was a nervous reaction," she said.

Since then, each has tried to channel the feistiness to her advantage. "If you're really comfortable, then you're not going to do that well," says Lindh. "I think everybody performs better if the situation is not an easy one."

Lindh might be plenty uncomfortable this winter, as her success to some extent will hinge on something as seemingly minor as how snugly her boots fit. Raichle, her boot manufacturer for the last ten years, was bought out recently, and Lindh spent the off-season testing the ski-boot waters before opting for Raichle's newest model.

"Boots are always a concern," says Herwig Demschar, women's coach for the U.S. Ski Team. "Especially for a downhiller."

Lindh's other major challenge is in her head. A decade of living out of a suitcase with a traveling band of hypercompetitive athletes and lying awake nights, sweating bullets over milliseconds has taught her one thing about herself. "I think too much," she says. "And when I think too much about skiing, my thoughts are guaranteed to be screwed up."

Yet this winter also offers Lindh a rare opportunity: The world championships will be held in February in Sierra Nevada, Spain, the site of her first World Cup victory in 1994 and a course seemingly tailor-made for her let-them-run style.

"If I had to be a downhill course," says Lindh, obviously champing at the bit. "I would definitely be Sierra Nevada."

Filed To: Snow Sports

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