20 years since: Picabo Street wins Olympic super-G gold medal
Picabo Street was far from healthy entering the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.
She tore her left ACL in a training run in December 1996 and returned to the slopes a year later, just two months before the 1998 Games. Then one week before the Opening Ceremony, she crashed into a fence in a World Cup race in Sweden. She was knocked unconscious and suffered a concussion.
Her health fortunes only worsened when she arrived in Nagano.
She sprained her right ankle playing a pickup game of indoor volleyball, her second favorite sport, with several other skiers.
“I felt like I wasn’t whole,” Street said. “But that was OK because I had enough fire inside and will to push through it.”
Street felt immense pressure in Nagano. She was already considered the best U.S. speed skier of all time after claiming the 1994 Olympic downhill silver medal, as well as the first U.S. downhill world championship title in 1996.
On race day, she received a pump-up speech from an unlikely source. After the course inspection, 18-year-old U.S. teammate Jonna Mendes pulled aside the 26-year-old Street, and Street remembers Mendes saying, “I don’t know what happened to you in Sweden when you smacked your head, but your confidence is not as strong as it should be. I need you to find it now because this [course] has your name written all over it, and you are the one to beat today.”
Street agreed with Mendes that the course suited her strengths, saying that it resembled a downhill course because it was “the most wide-open, fastest super-G you could get away with.” In fact, Street’s ski technician, Mike “Cookie” Kairys, decided she would forgo super-G skis and utilize the same downhill skis she used to win her Olympic downhill silver medal four years earlier.
But if Street’s injuries did not provide enough adversity, she also suffered a major equipment malfunction less than 20 minutes before her super-G run.
France’s Jean-Luc Cretier, who won the downhill gold medal in Nagano, playfully gave Street a “you-go-girl butt slap.” Surprised, Street dropped her helmet, shattering her facemask. She franticly used duct tape to put her helmet back together.
“I thought, ‘Sweet, I’m going to race at the Olympics with duct tape on my helmet,’” Street said. “I had to pull all of my faculties together because I was right on the edge.”
At the top of the mountain, Street decided that she would take an aggressive line.
“I call it the ‘bad-boy line,’” Street said. “I threw caution to the wind, like this is either going to work or it’s not.”
On the first jump, she estimates that she drifted six feet off her line, but she made up time by angrily charging the next four gates. She accelerated as she went down the track, since downhill skis are longer than super-G skis and require more time to get up to speed.
Street believes she reached a “sixth gear” that she had never experienced, before or since.
“I might have been in fifth gear before and felt really out of control, but I was irreverently grabbing sixth gear in Nagano,” Street said. “It was a very different place for me.”
When Street, wearing bib No. 2, crossed the finish line, the clock read 1 minute, 18.02 seconds. The time was a full 1.14 seconds faster than Norway’s Ingeborg Helen Marken, who went first.
“My stomach went into my throat,” Street said. “I started to think this day might turn out as it had when I started dreaming about it at age 10.”
But Street still had an agonizingly long wait to see whether her time would stand, with 41 skiers left to race.
Street watched as Germany’s Katja Seizinger, who won three medals in Nagano, went 11th and clocked a time that was .42 seconds slower. Austria’s Michaela Dorfmeister went 18th and missed Street’s time by just .01 seconds.
“I wanted to run away from everything because I had no control over [the result],” Street said. “But I said to myself, ‘This is your day and you can’t hide, but at the same time don’t be obnoxious and say anything stupid.’”
Street’s time held up. Just .07 seconds separated the three medalists, making it the closest Alpine race in Olympic history.
She still has the winning helmet at her home in Utah with the same 20-year-old duct tape.
“Luckily we didn’t put another wrap on it or I might not have won,” Street said, “because .01 seconds is immeasurable.”
Street’s first call was to her mother, Dee. Dee struggled to comprehend that Street’s Olympic triumph came in super-G, since all nine of her career World Cup victories came in her signature discipline, downhill.
“It was a real big surprise,” Street said. “I wasn’t even supposed to be in the medal [contention for super-G].”
Another surprise awaited Street on the Olympic podium.
Her father, Stubby, briefly drove a bus when a broken arm suffered in a karate class prevented him working as a stone mason. He once gave a ride to French Alpine skier Jean-Claude Killy and proudly told the three-time Olympic champion about his daughter, who was then 17.
Killy was tasked with presenting the super-G medals in Nagano, and when he put the gold medal around Street’s neck, he revealed that he remembered meeting her father nine years earlier.
“I couldn’t believe he remembered,” Street said. “I was a basket case. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stand up and listen to the anthem with any kind of composure.”
Street did not have much time to celebrate, because she still had to race in the downhill.
Conditions were less than ideal after rain forced the downhill competition to be delayed two days.
“I’m not blaming anyone, I’m not that type, but I remember looking at the course and thinking this is in really [bad] shape,” Street said. “This is not going to feel good for any of us.”
Street finished sixth, as five of the 39 skiers failed to finish.
“It was funky,” Street said. “It is what it is.”
Street, 46, is now the mother of three sons and the President of the Picabo Street Academy. She is proud that so many young skiers witnessed her triumph in the super-G in Nagano.
“I remember Nagano as an almost picture-perfect moment for me to inspire as many people as possible in one day,” Street said.
Sure enough, Lindsey Vonn said her earliest Olympic memory was watching the 1998 Nagano Games as a 13-year-old and seeing Street win gold.
“I want to give the girls of the next generation someone to look up to,” Vonn said, “just like I looked up to Picabo Street.”