Citius, Altius, Picabo
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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 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 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,
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
“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
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.