Picabo Street’s unwavering commitment has always been tethered to the pursuit of speed. Overcoming years of formidable terrain, unceasing travel, and incapacitating injuries, Sun Valley’s Olympic alpine skiing gold medalist blazed a trail for a fresh generation of American winter athletes.
Picabo grew up in Sun Valley’s neighboring town of Triumph, Idaho (population 35). As the only girl in her age group, Picabo fostered a tough determination to match her peers—and she did it well. By age five, she was swiping her brother’s ski gear and chasing him and her father down the mountain. Not long after, they were chasing her.
“My ability to ski Warm Springs top to bottom without checking up at any point because I got nervous or didn’t read the line right; that was the beginning,” Picabo says. “And then I took that confidence and that ability to some other really big monster mountains. Those are memories that I keep really close, that are really mine.”
Picabo grew up racing for the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation on Baldy. The Streets relied upon scholarships and later private donors and sponsorships to fund Picabo’s progress. As her career expanded, she was propelled by the discipline and sacrifices it took for her to participate in the first place.
“It keeps it in your mind to stay appreciative and humble that you’re even getting the opportunity,” Picabo explains as she delves into the sometimes exhausting lifestyle of travel that comes with taming difficult courses around the world. “That’s not to say that affluence can’t produce that kind of hunger and drive and grit and tenacity, but it’s easier to play when kids are given a shot they wouldn’t usually be given otherwise.”
Picabo’s efforts came to fruition as she swept up medals across the globe. She won her first silver medal in downhill at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. In the following two years, she captured six downhill victories in nine races on the World Cup circuit, becoming the first non-European to claim the downhill title.
Although she suffered a knee injury in 1996, Picabo’s resilience and recovery returned her to the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. She won her first Olympic gold medal after placing first in the Super G (supergiant slalom).
Picabo’s race to the podium brought American skiing onto the map for the first time ever. Her accomplishments transcended gender as she became the first household name in winter sports history. But at the time, Picabo didn’t see the path she was pioneering for the next generation of athletes, particularly female skiers. Picabo was most notably the first winter athlete to claim a Nike sponsorship, and her peak popularity in the media influenced ski gear styled for women, encouraging femininity and self-expression for later Olympians like Julia Mancuso and Lindsay Vonn.
“I had my head down and wanted to be the fastest time on the scoreboard at the end of the day, no matter what kind of competition level I was racing at; it wasn’t until later in my career that I realized what I was starting to do,” Picabo says. “ I met Lindsay when she was 9 years old, and I could tell by the look in her eyes that I was probably going to be seeing her again.”
While Picabo triumphed throughout her career, she also faced multiple debilitating injuries, the most severe being snapping her femur and tearing her ACL in the winter of 1998. Discouraged by the idea of being passed up by her competitors and determined to compete in the 2002 Utah Olympics, Picbao worked her way through rehabilitation to return to a competing state.
“It was the first time I was really like, ‘Wow, am I going to be able to do this again?’” Picabo says. “A year, 9 months and 12 days to be off the snow that it really was unfamiliar territory, and I had to figure out how to babystep my way back. The journey of 1,000 miles starts with one step.”
Her efforts eventually proved victorious as she qualified one last time for Utah’s World Championships, where she placed 16th in downhill. The biggest prize she carried out was the experience of competing so close to home. “I honestly feel like a medal would have been lost in it all because everything else meant so much more,” Picabo says.
Picabo’s days of racing are over, but when the conditions are right, she hits the mountain with her sons. “They like to race every now and then to see if they have a little Mama in them, and they do, but I think I’ll be able to stay faster than them for some time, if not always,” Picabo says. “They get froggy and think they might be able to beat me, but I don’t think they really understand how fast I’ve actually skied.