Picabo’s Olympic Battle

High in the Andes, Picabo Street, the world’s most famous woman skier, is posing, like a fashion model, on a pile of cushions in a sunlit window seat. Behind her, a magnificent frozen lake ringed by the snow-covered peaks of the Tres Hermanos which rear to almost 20,000 feet on the Chilean-Argentine border. She is pretty, and tosses her auburn hair back like a professional. But the photographer is focusing on her powerful legs, badly scarred as a result of a career punctuated by high speed accidents on the world-cup skiing circuit, resulting from her ferociously competitive approach to the “love of her life” – downhill racing.

Jonathan Selkowitz’s lens is aimed at one particularly long, straight scar that runs down the side of her left leg – the legacy of a skiing accident which might have put her in a wheelchair or possibly even caused her to bleed to death. Street will never forget the moment: “It was 1.37 PM on Friday, March 13, 1998” she recalls.

Now Picabo, the darling of North American skiing, is preparing for one of the most difficult winters of her life – trying so ski her way back to the top after an almost catastrophic injury. Just a month after her Olympic victory at Nagano, Japan, during the World-Cup finals in Crans Montana, she misjudged a jump while racing in Crans Montana, Switzerland, and, trying to protect her face, hurtled into a fence at 60 mph. It threatened to end her skiing career, and plunged her into three months of profound depression. “It was pretty gnarly” she said. “I just wanted to sit behind closed curtains and not go out. I almost lost my leg. My knee had been blown apart so my body wasn’t functioning properly. I felt my body was impaired and my mind was spinning out of control.

“I didn’t ski for one year, nine months and 12 days” she says. Like a caged prisoner, she obviously feels a need to tick off the days of her private torture. After enduring five operations in the space of a year, this race in Portillo, she believed, would mark the beginning of her comeback on the world skiing stage.
“Most skiers wouldn’t have come back from an injury like that” she says, re-arranging her battle-scarred legs for Selkowitz, who had been commissioned by Outside, an American outdoors magazine to request a “tasteful” portfolio of the champion’s wounds. Both knees are scarred from surgery after a variety of accidents – including a world-cup crash at Steamboat in 1989 (left knee) and Vail (right knee) in 1996.

“I thought of tattooing a zipper into the big long scar” she jokes, but it is clearly no laughing matter. “I haven’t shown my legs in public since the accident. I always wear pants or a long skirt. I was kind of reluctant to do this shoot, but because I trust Jonathan, I agreed to do it. “
As she talks, the photographer snaps away, trying to find the elusive balance between an attractive, effervescent young woman, a mesmerising panorama and the scars of battle.

“Although it’s nice to be thought of as a warrior, there are times when I just want to be seen as an attractive young woman” she says.
She takes us through the motions of the worst crash of her career: “I hit a side hill, which spat me out, I swung round, leant out to try to kick my feet outside the gate, and hit the fence. I went from full speed to zero in two feet. Four bone fragments came off the back of my knee and one hit a main artery. Luckily, it didn’t sever it or I could have died in hospital in Sion”

It only took a split second. Now she faced the long and frustrating doldrums of inactivity and self doubt. “If you feel unattractive to yourself, you sure as hell are not going to be attractive to anyone else.” Her relationship with her boyfriend foundered. Street did not ski again until just after Christmas last year in Park City, Utah, one of the resorts hosting the 2002 Olympics. She chose Pay Day for her return to the slopes – a run she used to race on as a 12-year-old.

“I first ran gates again this May at Mammoth, California” she said. Now, in the snowy amphitheatre of Portillo, 9,350 feet up in the Andes, she had taken out her beloved downhill skis, 213 centimetres long, for the first time. They felt bigger than she remembered. “Wow” she said to herself, “they’re long!” But crucially, there was “no pain, no hesitation and no discomfort”.
“It felt perfect” she said. “I felt I was back where I belong.”

Now she faces a long, nerve-wracking winter back on the downhill circuit. In spite of her superb track record, Picabo cannot just walk back into the American Olympic team. ” I still have to ski fast enough to qualify ” she says. “But I am willing to risk whatever it takes to win. I just can’t describe how important downhill racing is to me.”
Street often visits Snow Basin, the location for the Olympic downhill races , usually alone, but sometimes with US team-mates. “About a month ago, I climbed up and down from top to bottom ” she said. “I’ve picnicked there, prayed there, cried, laughed and danced there, rolled down the slopes, trying to convert the mountain’s majestic energy into a feeling of happiness so that whether it has 18 inches of snow or seven feet I’ll feel happy and comfortable racing there. I even made a visit during the night – and I’m petrified of the dark. Normally if it’s too dark, I don’t want to go outside. But I figured that if I could get rid of all my fears, the mountain would become a sanctuary for me. A lot of positive energy will surface which I need to in order to keep my equilibrium and get into a medal-threatening position”

Her biggest desire is to win a medal at Salt Late city with her mother looking on. “She wasn’t able to travel to Nagano to see me win my gold medal in 1998 because she has rheumatoid arthritis” says Street. “But she’ll be there this time. I want to win a medal for mom.”

She smiles broadly at this thought. And Selkowitz takes another picture.

© Arnie Wilson

(Financial Times Pink Snow supplement, 2001)