Picabo goes down swinging

Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2002

SNOWBASIN, Utah -- She bent over and kissed the top of the mountain.

This was it. Twenty-five years after that first run down Porfrey Peak. Six surgeries since the horrific crash in Switzerland. Four years of getting ready for the short drive from Park City to Snowbasin. One last delay.

The wind at the 9,016-foot start finally died down. Twenty-five other skiers already had flown down a slope that seemed almost named for her.

Wildflower. It was her turn to try to give these Games its perfect story.

Ted Williams homering in his final at-bat. John Elway winning a Super Bowl and walking away. Picabo Street winning gold on her home field.

So she bent over, kissed the snow and mumbled something to herself.

"In a few minutes, I can retire."

One minute, 41.17 seconds, to be exact.

There was no storybook ending. No third Olympic medal. She finished in 16th place, 1.61 seconds behind France's Carole Montillet, and then, with the fans screaming her name, called it "the best day I've ever had in my ski racing career."

She went down swinging. And as crazy as this sounds, it was a great day for the Olympics, a day that reminded one why this is the pairs competition that defines the Winter Games. Men's and women's downhill. Not figure skating.

Not snowboarding. Not anything with judges.

Just the mountain and a clock.

Some say the mountain is cruel. That isn't really true. The mountain is fair. The mountain doesn't care how you dress, or if you're young or old, or if you won a silver in Lillehammer and a gold at Nagano. The mountain doesn't care if your name is Picabo Street and you live just down the road and you are supposed to be the darling of the Salt Lake City Games.

She could have complained that she got hurt by the wind that postponed competition Monday, then delayed it another 130 minutes yesterday. They re-drew starting spots. She went from second to 26th on a day when the course seemed to get slower.

She didn't complain. She shrugged it off, recalling the moment when she knew it wasn't going to happen.

She had gotten off to a fast start, ripping through Shooting Star Jump and Paintbrush Meadow. Then she came to Draba Drop, a long and dangerous jump about two-thirds of the way into the 10,302-foot course, got into the shade and felt her skis biting the snow.

"It bummed me out, but what can you do?" she said. "Mother Nature is doing what she's doing."

She got to the bottom, blew kisses to the crowd, then got a microphone and, with her voice cracking, sent a message to her parents, the free-spirits who until age 6 merely called her "Baby Girl."

She told them that they wouldn't have to stay up until 4 a.m. anymore, wondering if she had survived some run on the other side of the globe. She told everyone this was it.

She had a lot of people pulling for a different ending. Even the President.

She met him at the Opening Ceremonies. Shook his hand and said, "Picabo Street, Alpine skiing."

"I know who you are," he said. "How are your wheels, girl?"

Her wheels, of course, are covered with scars. One runs the length of the left thigh, a reminder of the broken femur that was glued and screwed back together following that crash in Switzerland.

For those wheels to make it into victory lane ... oh, what a story that would have been.

But the mountain doesn't care about great stories. The mountain is the most impartial judge of all. It is old and wise. And on this day it said that the woman wearing bib number 26 and red, white and blue helmet deserved to be 16th.

And she could live with that.

Florida Times-Union columnist Mark Woods is part of a Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics.



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