Marla Streb's Mind-Body Problem

What's a brilliant woman like this doing in a rough-and-tumble sport like downhill mountain-bike racing? Trying to think her way to the top of the winner's podium, that's what.

Jul 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
DOWN AT THE DOCKS in Sausalito, on a rare afternoon without a workout, Streb and Fitzgerald are showing me around the tight, musty cabin of their sailboat, christened Indifference. The dual-mast, steel-hulled ketch pulls hard against its moorings, like a getaway car revving its engine.

They bought it used last year for $50,000, figuring that when Streb's bike-racing days end, the freedom she's cultivated won't have to. They intend to take the money she's been socking away and flee permanently, to open waters. "We'd like to see the world by sailing," she says. "There's no plan in terms of where we'll go. Thus the name."

Streb admitted to me earlier that she had worried about the commitment such a plan represents, just as she worries about any kind of emotional attachment. "I don't want to get married," she told me. "I gave so much of myself to my brother, and it all got taken away. After that, I've never let any boys get completely into my heart, not even Mark. I'm totally cruel, huh?"

You'd think such a deep-seated fear of being trapped would pose a problem for someone intending to live on a boat for 20 years. "I thought, 'How stir-crazy am I going to go?'" she says. But on a cruise with Fitzgerald down the California coast last winter, she realized that life at sea could be compatible with the Streb way of life: "We were on the boat for five days straight, sailing it all night, taking two-hour shifts. That's when it started to get fun, sleeping in all the raingear with the hooks and the harnesses just dripping while the other person would be steering, at three in the morning, surrounded by 30-foot waves. That made up for the lack of get out and go."

With her retirement plans provisionally squared away, Streb remains focused on becoming world champion. But time is catching up with her, at least in her head. "When I first started racing I didn't care about crashing," she says. "But now it does come up in my thoughts, at night, and it makes me mad. I know that fear makes you slower. The idea is not to get injured at all, otherwise it's going to be a very depressing year. If you break your spine, or your neck, that's your life."

Such anxieties are not merely coming from within, according to Streb's younger brother, Chris, an ecological engineer back in Baltimore. "My parents have become a lot more protective than before my brother died," he told me. "Marla's feeling a lot of pressure from them for her not to break her neck. But she still has the spirit to say, 'Fuck it.' She's teaching my parents. Her attitude isn't rebellious; it's her saying, 'Look, I love you, but this is what I need to be happy.'"

Nightmares and fear are unlikely to slow down someone who has proven so adept at chasing her dreams. "I've never had a run that I thought was perfect," Streb says. "I've had runs I thought I probably couldn't do much better—maybe just a couple in my life. I've dreamed of jumping and floating for a long time. That's a really great dream, being able to jump for a long, long time, almost more than big air. Big air into flying. And not worrying about the landing."  

Andrew Tilin is a former senior editor of Outside.